Annihilation and Ex Machina director Alex Garland offers a provocative story and a major mystery
If the sole goal of cinema was to provoke a memorable emotional response in an audience — to make them feel something, anything, as long as they feel it powerfully — then Alex Garland’s Men would be counted as an unmitigated success. The writer-director’s follow-up to 2014’s Ex Machina and 2018’s Annihilation is certainly going to leave audiences with some forceful sensations. It’s a provocative, button-pushing film, full of startling imagery and aggressive metaphors. It’s certainly a unique and valuable experience in a field of movies that mostly focus on safe bets and familiar stories. Like so many of the projects that have given distribution company A24 a reputation for extreme visions, Men is unlikely to leave audiences feeling bored or indifferent.
But the actual responses to the film are likely to vary even more than they normally do around provocative films, because Men seems designed more to start arguments than to tell any kind of cohesive or meaningful story. Viewers are likely to come away arguing as much about what they actually saw on screen as they do about what it all meant. Garland has given them a kind of lush, moving Rorschach inkblot, open to so many different interpretations that it won’t be surprising if people walk away with an Inception-like experience where everyone finds a message based on their own beliefs, and an emotional response based on whether they think Garland is backing them up or telling them off.
The plot setup is simple to a fault. A young woman named Harper (Jessie Buckley) retreats to a gorgeous rented estate in the English countryside after a traumatic experience with her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu). Garland’s script reveals that trauma in bits and pieces over time, letting it change shape in the audience’s mind organically as each new revelation emerges. But apart from that inciting incident and Harper’s unfolding response on screen, he reveals almost nothing about her. She’s a symbol as much as a specific woman, no matter how nuanced and emotional Buckley’s performance becomes.
On the estate and in the nearby village, Harper begins to encounter a series of men, from jovial estate owner Geoffrey to a sullen teenage boy, a local policeman, a pub owner, an eerie vicar, and several more. Each of them has the same face, provided via digital effects by Rory Kinnear. She also has a jolting encounter in the nearby woods with a naked man, similarly played by Kinnear. As events escalate, they become more and more uncanny and alarming, building to a surreal pitch that fully outdoes the most alarming, adrenaline-charged events in Annihilation. Some of those events are drawn from horror conventions, while others head into the realm of David Lynch nightmares, if Lynch were particularly known for flamboyant CG gore and grotesquerie.
The simplest, shallowest bad-faith reading of all this would be that Garland is saying all men are the same, and that they’re universally destructive, predatory, and inimical to women. Well ahead of the film’s release, some angry internet critics were already loudly interpreting the film this way based solely on the trailers. The film itself (if they bother watching it) likely won’t change their minds. As the film departs further and further from the realm of domestic drama and into fantasy, Garland’s symbolism is opaque enough that the most determined won’t find anything to change their minds about their initial reading.
For instance, he builds a significant recurring motif around two ancient, highly gendered images: the Green Man, usually seen as a man’s face rendered in leaves, and the sheela na gig, a carving of a naked woman with a gaping vulva often spread open with her hands. Both are primal images, widely connected with fertility and with male and female power, respectively, and Garland uses them here to suggest an innate and primordial separation and conflict between the sexes. But what they have to do with the narrative is left open to interpretation.
Similarly, there’s an apple tree on the estate, which Harper eats from without permission as her first act upon arrival. The image hearkens back to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, with its forbidden fruit that represents choice, knowledge of good and evil, and loss of innocence. Various further action around that tree suggests a sharp escalation in the loss of whatever innocence Harper or her visitations might still have. But it’s never clear whether her experience with her husband somehow set all this action in motion, or whether her presence alone activated some ancient force or principle in the woods. It’s similarly unclear how real these experiences are, or are meant to be. It’s notable that Harper doesn’t comment on the fact that all the men have the same face. It’s unclear, even, whether what she’s seeing is what we’re seeing.
Meaning and purpose aside, Men is a sensualist’s dream. Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy (who also shot Ex Machina and Annihilation) give the film a gaspingly intense visual crispness, with vivid colors and endlessly startling imagery. Simple shots of a moss-covered tree or the raindrop ripples in a puddle are almost overwhelmingly beautiful. The music, by Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow — who also collaborated on Garland’s previous two films — blends ambient noise and music with Buckley’s vocalizations, sometimes to hauntingly beautiful effect, as when she explores a tunnel’s echo by harmonizing with her own voice. Later, a shriek of pent-up emotional pain slips so completely into the soundtrack that it might as well be something Harper is thinking more than something she’s actually doing.
And Garland does a tremendous job of building a heavy sense of dread over the film. Men is nearly unique as a horror movie in Harper’s specific response to the threats she faces. But even as she parts ways with the usual wailing victim image, the film still holds onto its sense of the uncanny and horrific. Even seasoned body-horror fans may be shaken by where this film goes in terms of its bloody physicality. No one will come away from this film claiming that Garland isn’t bold enough, experimental enough, or confident enough in his own outsized imagery.
The same sense of dread similarly saturated Annihilation, which Garland also filled with disquieting physical mutations and heavy, heady symbolism. But Men has just as much in common with Ex Machina, a science fiction story largely about two men in arrogant-overlord mode, literally deciding whether to consider a female figure as capable of thought and emotion. In that story, the balance of sympathy between the male and female characters is meant to shift with each new reveal, and to be weighted with the knowledge that the female character is inhuman, an AI who may be manipulating her captors as much as they’re manipulating her.
In Men, Garland makes the dynamic much simpler. Buckley plays Harper with a great deal of inner strength and confidence, but she’s still up against something implacable and monstrous. There’s much less sense of empathetic balance between the sides here — the script makes Harper far more human than her adversaries, without downsides or flaws to compensate. Of all the small frustrations in Men, that may be the largest — that there’s so little to Harper, that her past is entirely defined by her marriage, and her present by other men, to the point where there’s so little of her to take into account in the story.
Men carries some echoes of other recent horror films, particularly the ones built around small, telling aggressions that represent larger splits in society. It resembles Jordan Peele’s Get Out in some structural ways: Just as Get Out’s Black protagonist Chris clings to his phone contact with his Black friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery) as a lifeline when he’s out of his element in a white country enclave, Harper gets her only support via phone from her friend Riley (Gayle Rankin), the one other significant woman in the film. (Other notable similarities can’t be discussed without spoilers.) And the lush environs, gender tension, the focus on grief and ways to express it, the boiling anger below the surface, and the resultant primal screaming all recall Ari Aster’s Midsommar, another film soaked in dread and a sense of inevitability.
But Men’s eventual direction is far harder to read than either of those two films. Its final moments in particular seem designed more to start conversations and launch a thousand “The ending of Men, explained” essays and videos than to make any kind of cogent or representative statement. “This film leans very hard into the idea that a story is a 50-50 split between the storytellers and the story receivers,” Garland states in the film’s press notes. “More than any film I’ve worked on, this one was anticipating an audience would join the conversation.” Viewers are highly likely to come away from Men full of strong opinions and emotions, but whether they’re positive ones is going to depend heavily on whether they wanted to shoulder half the burden of deciding what a film means or what it’s trying to say.
Men opens in theaters on May 20.
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