Despite all the mystery that MenShrouded in the film’s story of a tormented woman trying to find peace in a world full of lurking, lustful men, writer/director Alex Garland’s new folk horror for A24 is a surprisingly simple tale. Men is often poignant in its brutality while telling a gut-wrenching tale of the multifaceted monster that misogyny really is. But Men struggles to keep his messages and all their stubbornness in focus, in large part due to his frustrating obsession with making you wonder how much of his alien nature is real.
Men tells the story of Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley), a young widow who leaves for the English countryside for a lonely retreat after the unexpected and horrific death of her husband James (Paapa Essiedu) by suicide. Men doesn’t reveal much about Harper or James as individuals or what first brought them together as a couple, but through flashbacks, the film describes the toxic mix of abuse and emotional manipulation that ultimately led to the end of their marriage. Although Harper knows leaving James was the right decision and that James’ suicide was not her fault, she can’t help but feel partially responsible and psychologically trapped by the traumatic circumstances of his death.
That feeling of being trapped and harmed by one’s emotional violence, even after they die, is one of the first manifestations of the evil entity that Men‘s title refers to. Men illustrates that, although Harper’s journey is something she wants to do for herself, almost everyone she hangs out with—except her boyfriend Riley (Gayle Rankin)—are quick to assume she’s traveling with a man because she can’t possibly have the desire to be in out on her own.
“Everyone” is a loaded term in the context of: Men, partly because there really aren’t that many other people living in the remote and impossibly scenic village where Harper’s has rented out a luxurious mansion for herself. Aside from Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), the clumsy, bumbling parody of an English compatriot who owns the house where Harper is staying, the only other people who actually live in the village seem to be a small assortment of male townspeople – all of whom are also inexplicably are and disturbingly portrayed by Kinnear. Whether Harper herself can see that every male-identified person she meets in the village has the same adult male face is not clear, and Men leave that question open for you to interpret, as the story becomes more and more strange and symbolic.
although Men gives clues about the danger circling Harper, it only becomes clear to her when she goes into the nearby woods for a walk and encounters a naked man – Kinnear again. Being chased through a remote forest by a deranged man covered in bruises and cuts is alarming in itself. But an important element of the horror Men is how easy it is for the men around Harper to reject her fear, however undeniably justified that fear may be.
Although they are important feelings she experiences as… Men unfolding, neither fear nor guilt is what defines Buckley’s Harper, a woman who reflexively hides parts of who she is from strangers, more out of caution than anything else. As one of the few women who MenHarper unexpectedly becomes something of a last girl as the film mutates into a home invasion thriller that’s both cerebral and straightforward. MenThe implicit supernatural attributes invite you to question the heroine’s state of mind. But Buckley makes a steadfast decision in her performance as Harper, reinforcing the notion that the only person who could simply imagine this “in her head” is one who never knows what it feels like to ignore their agency and physical autonomy because of it. their sex or gender.
The strange energy each of Kinnear’s various characters has at times plays like puzzling because Men doesn’t really give you a clue of who they are other than the fact that they all relate to women in different ways. Geoffrey’s mocking, emotional immaturity, for example, can make it difficult for the village priest or bartender to see much of himself in him. But Men shows you how the thing that unites them is an almost elemental disdain and lust for Harper.
Sometimes – especially when the male characters indulge in their most basic, ID-driven sexual impulses – Men bears a certain narrative resemblance to that of Emerald Fennel Promising young woman† But not like Promising young womanwhere it was partly meant to be shocked at how awful all of his seemingly “good” men really were, Men leaves little room for how each of its titular characters poses an existential threat to Harper.
Much of what goes on in MenThe last acts are really mind boggling and screwed up in a way that makes you appreciate Garland for being willing to go there. That said, the way Men coming to an end will also leave you questioning the extent to which Garland thought through the optics and implications of his story as a whole, beyond their immediate ability to make you deeply uncomfortable.
Men wants to make you think more deeply about what it’s trying to say, and it’s likely that a lot of people who eventually see the movie will be inclined. But the same heightened reality that makes Men‘s fears that are so powerful eventually have a confusing effect on the movie’s message, so much so that you’re not sure if Garland himself understood what he was trying to say.
Men also stars Sarah Twomey, Zak Rothera-Oxley and Sonoya Mizuno. The film hits theaters on May 20.