Alex Garland’s latest film stars Jessie Buckley as a woman besieged by toxic masculinity
It’s rare for a novelist — no matter how accomplished or feted — to make a successful jump into screenwriting. It’s also rare for a screenwriter — no matter how skillful or talented — to make an equally successful leap into directing. That rarity narrows to a virtual handful when a novelist-turned-screenwriter-turned-director also has what’s commonly called the auteur thing. Only a select few filmmakers working today are worthy of being called an “auteur” without reservation, hesitation, or qualification. Of English-language filmmakers working today, Alex Garland certainly belongs in that small, rarefied number, first as a novelist (The Beach, The Tesseract), then as a screenwriter (28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go), and finally as a writer-director (Ex Machina, Annihilation, Devs).
In Garland’s latest film, Men, an almost indescribable surrealistic nightmare that mixes elements of folk horror, psychological drama, and home-invasion thriller, thirty-something Londoner Harper (Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter) watches in abject terror as her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu), plunges to his death from an upper-story apartment. Whether his fall and tragic death was deliberate or accidental metaphorically and literally haunts the tortured, grief-stricken Harper. With little choice but to somehow move on, Harper decides that an extended getaway in the countryside will give her the physical and mental space to begin the healing process. Renting a large, sprawling country manor on the edge of an unnamed town surrounded by lush, verdant foliage and a solicitous—if socially awkward—landlord, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), seems exactly what Harper needs.
What Harper doesn’t know but we do, of course, is that the countryside won’t offer the solace or respite she expects, but something altogether more sinister and ultimately more dangerous: In a series of unfolding, interweaving set pieces, Harper’s experience shifts irrevocably from the normal to the abnormal, from the canny to the uncanny, and from the real to the surreal. A walk through a serpentine path — the second or third sign of skewed Biblical things to come — turns frightening moments after Harper encounters an abandoned tunnel. Garland gives Harper a moment of joy, or at least the faint glimmer of joy, when she uses the tunnel’s acoustics to sing to herself. A silhouetted figure at the other end of the tunnel, however, ensures that the country, like the city and its fraught memories, has terrors of its own to offer Harper.
Men takes a conscious departure into the inexplicably weird when a mute, naked man strolls through the rental property’s garden, necessitating a call to the ineffective local constabulary. They see the naked man more as a harmless nuisance or local oddity, highlighting not just Harper’s increasing isolation but the threats, both verbal and physical, that the “men” of the title (all of whom share co-star Rory Kinnear’s face) will pose to Harper. From the useless law enforcement officer to an indifferent pub owner, a surly, sullen teen, and right on through a local vicar with decidedly 19th-century views of men, woman, and relationships, each, in turn, treats Harper as an intruder or invader, gaslighting her one moment with a smirk and dismissing her the next with contempt.
So far, so metaphorical, but Garland isn’t content with a simple, straightforward story of gender conflict or toxic masculinity, jettisoning the logical naturalism of the early scenes for a surrealistic nightmare as Harper’s predicament becomes unmoored from anything resembling the real world. Not surprisingly, given the slow burn build-up and an abundance of discomfiting, disquieting clues and plot developments, Harper undergoes a dark night of the soul in the third act, a metaphysically purgatorial experience, a death reverie, or even a a purely subjective one inside her rapidly deteriorating mind.
At one point, Men shifts from psychodrama into home-invasion thriller, but it shifts again in the third act, swapping out the tropes of the home-invasion thriller for those traditionally associated with the folk horror sub-genre. A non-Christian, pagan-inspired font in a church carved with male and female figures usually associated with fecundity offers one clue as to Garland’s overall intent, using obscure and allusive symbols to suggest that Harper’s presence in the village has initiated an ancient ritual of birth, death, and rebirth somehow essential—however fraught, gruesome, and grotesque—to her physical, emotional, and mental recovery from a life-redefining trauma.
That, however, might be too simple or reductive an interpretation of the film’s interlocking themes. Embracing interpretive ambiguity as a filmmaking goal means Garland leaves the audience with far more questions than answers. There’s nothing of Ex Machina’s thematic clarity or Annihilation’s open meaning to be found in Men and its consciously obscurantist denouement that leaves Harper in survival horror mode with a seemingly innocuous phrase, “I just want your love,” hanging over her ultimate fate and the end credits. Sometimes, it seems, you not only have to kill your darlings—you have to slice, dice, and hack them into unrecognizable chunks of meat, bone, and sinew before you can move on with what remains of your life.
Men opens theatrically in North America on Friday, May 20th.