by Ian Morton
Men is a strange film. On paper, it’s an extraordinary idea that looks at toxic misogyny and blends it with Cronenberg-like body horror in a way that’s equal parts intriguing as it is horrifying. The reality however doesn’t quite manage to achieve its lofty goals, as a lacklustre story barely scratches the surface, let down ironically by its male point of view.
Harper (Jessie Buckley) retreats to a country manor after experiencing the traumatic death of her husband. Once there, she gains the unwanted attention of the locals that don’t quite provide the relaxing environment she’s looking to heal in.
To say anymore about the plot would be spoiling it, but to say it’s a generic film about a creepy village would be doing it an injustice. The film is firstly a metaphor about misogyny, an allegory of abuse and a depiction of grief but secondarily a film built to entertain. This is both the movie’s strength and weakness as on one hand, it has nowhere to hide, playing its hand early and fully leaning into its shocking visual storytelling but on the other, its clunky, with very little depth to give it long lasting appeal.
For the most part this weakness is exacerbated by the fact that this is a movie about misogyny, written and directed by a man. Now this could be arguably the film’s central conceit – an internal joke at the viewer’s expense – but if it’s meant to be funny, the joke doesn’t land as well as hoped as its inherent male gaze ultimately stops it from getting under your skin. The lack of female gaze, particularly within this context, creates a void in the narrative that’s hard to pin down. It could be a lack of subtlety, it could be a lack of nuance, either way, if you compare it to the works of Jennifer Kent (The Babadook, The Nightingale), or Julia Ducournau (Raw), the void becomes chasm-like in how tenuous it connects with its audience.
Despite these thematic and storytelling issues however, Men is mercilessly confident in its soundscape and performances. Towards the beginning of the film, Harper takes a walk in the woods and discovers a train tunnel buried in the woodland. As she ventures in, she notices the tunnels echo and proceeds to sing into the darkness. Her calls form the foundation of the film’s score and its creepy distortion echoes throughout the film, building out the unfolding events and creating an evocative atmosphere whenever it ramps up. It’s a texturous addition to the film, full of dread and an excellent carrier of tension.
Easily the champion of the film however is Jessie Buckley. Never one to give less than 100%, she easily carries you through the 1 hour and 40 minute run time. Fully committed, Buckley somehow gives us a fleshed out, 3 dimensional character despite the movie’s missing depth of narrative. It’s such a shame the story isn’t stronger as her performance feels a little wasted, almost too good, let down by everything else around her.
Director Alex Garland is known for his work in sci-fi, particularly through a horror lense. Films like Ex-Machina and Annihilation have given us something to think about but with his latest effort Men, it feels more lesson-like than philosophical. There are some solid takeaways here and no doubt it will find an audience, but for most, it will leave you split down the middle.
Men is in UK cinemas now!