Given the almost-masterpiece that was “Annihilation” and the stylish excellence of “Ex Machina,” nothing could have prepared me for the disappointment of Alex Garland’s newest psychological horror flick. Not even the insistent warnings from friends about how much it sucked, the underwhelming trailer or the fact that “Men” would be the third film written and directed by Garland that centers on female suffering. Against better judgment, I mustered the willpower to park myself in the empty theater — if not for myself, then for Jessie Buckley (“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”).
Buckley stars as Harper, a widow whose husband committed suicide after she asked for a divorce. She escapes to a charming house in the English countryside to process the tragedy and is greeted by the property’s caretaker Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear, “Our Flag Means Death”). Geoffrey, with his massive chompers and repository of corny jokes, seems relatively harmless as he helps Harper settle in for the duration of her solo trip. Geoffrey asks Harper about her husband, noticing that she hadn’t dropped the “Mrs.” from her name — Harper’s a bit spooked by this, but she later calls her best friend Riley (Gayle Rankin, “The Climb”), who reminds Harper that she is there to heal.
Harper makes her way through the surrounding nature and takes note of a seemingly feral naked man, also played by Kinnear, who she suspects is stalking her. She visits the town’s church, decorated with pagan imagery, and eventually makes her way to the pub. At every location, Harper comes across several men, each with Kinnear’s face.
In a once-in-a-career acting feat, Kinnear succeeds at distilling a particular kind of evil into each role. All of the men Harper encounters belittle her in their own way: there’s the vicar, who questions why she drove her husband to suicide; the pub-goers, who tease her for her anger over the local feral man’s release; and there’s even a young boy with Kinnear’s likeness pasted over his face, who accosts Harper at the church and demands that she plays hide-and-seek with him.
Interspersed between the events of the film are the final moments of Harper’s deceased husband James (Paapa Essiedu, “I May Destroy You”). Neither Harper nor the audience knows if James’s demise was an accident, but his cruelty in threatening to kill himself and possessiveness over his wife is made excessively clear.
As Harper explores the countryside and the village of Cotson, the beauty of the setting is done justice by cinematographer Rob Hardy. The score — composed by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury and mixed by Glenn and Nick Freemantle — is absolutely integral to the isolation Harper experiences. The film looks and sounds great, but that’s about as far as it goes in terms of redeeming aspects.
There isn’t much to say about our protagonist, whose entire personality is implied rather than constructed. Garland informs Harper’s character only through things that she has endured — sexist aggressions, abuse by her husband — and expects her to be sympathetic on the grounds that men treat her badly. In a film that’s trying to parade as feminist, the supposed strong female protagonist is the most underbaked presence on the screen, and Buckley’s performance is entirely responsible for breathing any life into Harper. Garland could’ve made something of Harper’s friend Riley — who appears almost entirely over FaceTime — but she too was given nary a chance.
Things pick up in the bloody third act when all of the Kinnears eventually end up on the lawn of Harper’s Airbnb, each attempting to make their way inside. There’s a bit more to chew on when it comes to the gruesome body horror of the film’s ending. Kinnear gives birth to Kinnear, who slithers out of his own filth to birth another Kinnear — this happens again before Harper’s husband emerges. Perhaps Garland is commenting on some generational pattern of male identity, of wretched ideology, that distills into the one person who inflicted upon Harper the most damage. But even this revelation is unimpressive and underwhelming, rendering the film’s conclusion a sticky mess that doesn’t quite know what it is.
Firmly planted in the surreal, the film’s story is entirely reliant on symbolism that’s puddle-deep and ideas that are bludgeoned to death. There’s nothing else to glean from the events besides “men are bad.” It’s as if Garland took a gender studies class and learned for the first time that women aren’t taken seriously, then decided to make a movie without looking any further. As a woman, Garland’s attempt at allegorizing the female experience does absolutely nothing for me.
If “Men” was a comedy, it’d be a triumph. It indulges in the formula of the A24 art house horror film — ethereal look and sound, religious symbolism, gore that self-describing “true intellectuals” will appreciate — but with a premise that can’t stand on its own two feet, “Men” inadvertently makes fun of itself. The film’s desire to be taken seriously only adds to the pretentiousness factor, which caused my eyes to roll so far back into my head they nearly fell out.
Daily Arts Writer Laine Brotherton can be reached at email@example.com.