Review: Men

Year: 2022
Runtime: 100 Minutes
Writer/Director: Alex Garland
Stars: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu

By Bianca Garner

Warning: Spoilers!

What is Alex Garland’s “Men” all about? It’s perhaps one of this year’s most intriguing and most haunting horror films, but its actual meaning is wrapped in a cocoon of mystery and enigma. Is it a modern retelling of the legend of the Green Man? Is it a home invasion film for the #MeToo era? It’s hard to find the words to describe “Men” to you. How do I give a brief synopsis of the film without revealing too much? With a film like “Men” it’s best to go into the theater knowing as little as possible in order to gain the most impact from the film’s content. 

“Men” begins in a way that we’ve seen a million times before. A young attractive woman who has experienced a personal tragedy decides to escape to the countryside for a peaceful retreat. It’s been seen in the likes of “I Spit on Your Grave” and various other slasher films since then. It’s interesting that Garland decided to use this rather simple and slightly cliched horror plot for his own horror film. Harper (played by the simply wonderful Jessie Buckley) has decided to go and spend a weekend away in a typical English countryside village. It’s in the middle of nowhere and the phone reception is pretty dodgy at times. So far, you’re probably rolling your eyes at this as it’s something we’ve seen before. We all know how this will play out…But, “Men” doesn’t exactly go the way you would think it would go.

Jessie Buckley in Men | © Men Film Rights LLC.

At first, things seem relatively normal. The cottage’s owner Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) is annoyingly friendly, and a little old fashioned when it comes down to gender roles, insisting on getting Harper’s luggage from her car single handily. We quickly discover that the reason for Harper’s escape to the countryside is because of the apparent suicide of her husband James (played by Paapa Essiedu). Whilst on a walk near the cottage, Harper encounters a long railway tunnel where she encounters a mysterious male stranger (completely stark naked, there’s a lot of penises on show in “Men”, just be warned). 

“Is it a modern retelling of the legend of the Green Man? Is it a home invasion film for the #MeToo era? It’s hard to find the words to describe “Men” to you. How do I give a brief synopsis of the film without revealing too much?”

The male follows her home, and later tries to break into the house. He may be a complete stranger as the two police officers (the male played by Kinnear, and the female played by Sarah Twomey) tell her, or he may be the Green Man, whose origins have been lost to time as he seems to have leaves sprouting out from his face. Harper soon meets more men in the village. She seeks advice and comfort from the village priest (played by Kinnear again) who tries to justify James’ actions. The day gets worse, when she discovers that the naked stranger has been released from police custody and is out there, waiting for her. 

Jessie Buckley in Men | © Men Film Rights LLC.

Visually, “Men” is absolutely stunning. The wonderful use of slow motion, color and light help to create an unnerving atmosphere that leaves the viewer so disoriented and unsettled. The film’s score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow is complex and hauntingly beautiful, but has that underlying primal rawness to it that causes the hairs on the back of your neck to stand up when listening to it. The film’s cinematography by Rob Hardy is also worth mentioning, as the high birds eye view of Harper walking in the countryside creates this unsettling feeling of being watched.

What about Harper as a character? Buckley delivers a great performance, she reacts in a way that I think any of us would react if there were supernatural, unworldly male monsters trying to get to you. However, in a lot of ways, Harper comes across as an empty shell. Through the use of flashbacks, her story is fleshed out but we never get to see Harper and her husband James before the event that surrounds his divorce. What drove her to the point where she asked for the divorce anyway?

“Visually, “Men” is absolutely stunning. The wonderful use of slow motion, color and light help to create an unnerving atmosphere.”

James appears manic and clearly mentally unstable, and there’s no excuse for what he does to Harper in terms of his reaction, but how did he reach this point? Was that toxicity and anger always there inside of him? Is that what Garland is attempting to say with “Men”? That even the men we love are full of toxicity? The more I think about this movie, the more questions I am left with…And, in a way, that’s what I love about it. 

There’s a lot left unexplained in “Men” and after finishing the film I was instantly propelled into the act of researching about the mythology surrounding the Green Man. The Green Man is meant to be a pagan symbol that symbolizes the cycle of death and rebirth, which would explain the film’s twisted and frankly bizarre ending. Whereas, the Green Man is traditionally seen as a helpful figure that does good, Garland uses him in “Men” to show how toxicity is continually being reborn in men due to our patriarchal society…Or at least, that’s one reading of the film. 

Rory Kinnear in Men | © Men Film Rights LLC.

What were Garland’s intentions with a film like “Men”? It personally left me in a very unsettled mood, walking home from the cinema I had to venture under a tunnel to get to my home. Luckily it’s not the same type of tunnel that Harper encounters the Green Man in but it did cause my heart to beat quicker and I increased my pace. If Garland’s purpose was to show the dangers of the world to women, then did he manage to do well? In my personal opinion, I believe he did, but whether that will have an impact on the film’s intended audience, who knows?

Garland attempts to show the horrors of the patriarchy but at times I think the film misses the beat. Harper is only one of three women seen in the film, none of the other two women ever have more than a few minutes of screen time. Their stories are never developed, so who are they as people, have they ever encountered misogyny in the same way that Harper has? 

There’s no real triumph or sense of victory in the film’s conclusion. It could be argued that Harper manages to come face to face with her husband and the guilt that she’s been carrying around with her. But, Garland chooses to cut away before we see any real communication between the two of them. When asked what he wants from Harper, James replies back “I want your love” but then we don’t see what happens next between the two of them. Does Harper refuse to give her love to James? Is “Men” suggesting that even the love of a good woman can’t save some men? Questions, questions…

I haven’t been this puzzled over a movie for a long time, and that’s why I am so drawn to “Men”. It’s not an easy film to watch, the bloody goriness and overwhelming sense of dread is enough to put anyone off, but it is a film that will strike up a lot of conversations afterwards. 

Photos courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb. “Men” is in cinemas now, and released via A24.

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