Film review: ‘Men’, by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Steadily emerging as one of the most interesting contemporary filmmakers, Alex Garland, who intrigued and unnerved us with his AI thriller Ex Machina, brings us his creepiest film yet, the oddball horror misogyny parable, Men.  As anyone who has seen the evil, shiny, puppet-like face in the promo will realise, there’s something decidedly sinister at work in this film.

Here, Jessie Buckley plays Harper, a young woman trying to recover from the trauma of her boyfriend James’s (Paapa Essiedu) death.  Repairing to what seems to be the calm, provincial idyll of a centuries old English country house, she hopes the solitude will help her heal.  Anyone who watched horror films and thrillers from the 1970’s such as The Wicker Man and The Shout knows, however, that out-of-the-way English villages are just full of freaky dangers.  Sure enough, Harper soon finds herself being menaced by weird local males (all of whom are played by Rory Kinnear) including a naked man who emerges from a very creepy forest, a schoolboy who looks like something out of an Aphex Twin video and a priest who could have come from the dark TV comedy The League of Gentlemen.  Their harassment becomes more violent and strange as these males seem to appear from nowhere and disappear into thin air….then it becomes really weird. I won’t divulge the details of the horror into which this film descends but unsuspecting audiences may be emitting loud and obscenity-laden expressions of shock.

This film is, for the most part, an extremely potent psychological thriller. It’s at its best, though, in its more straightforward early scenes where there’s a visceral and chilling sense of Harper being alone, isolated and vulnerable as these strange men ramp up their stalking behaviour.  The later scenes, that mix freakish body horror with references to pagan mythology and fertility rites are at times quite grotesque and confronting but lack the palpable threat of the earlier sequences.  It would be surprising if two diametrically opposed schools of thought didn’t emerge regarding the merits of the first and second halves of this film.  Not surprisingly with two somewhat disjointed halves, this film leaves us a little confused as to exactly what Garland as scriptwriter was trying to say.

Throughout, though, Garland’s direction is terrific.  He gives the film a unique stamp despite it recalling Stanley Kubrick in its precise framing, David Lynch in its fever dream weirdness and David Cronenberg in its repulsive depictions of bodies. He makes terrific use of the locations with verdant English landscapes and fields of flowers that could have come from a Monet painting.  All of this is imbued, however, with an atmosphere of menace which is enhanced by a terrific score from Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow.  There’s also very effective use of Lesley Duncan’s folky 1970’s tune ‘Love Song’.

Jessie Buckley again proves she is one of the finest actresses around, making Harper a thoroughly believable, complex and empathetic character.  As her nemeses, Rory Kinnear is also sensational giving each incarnation of this male menace a distinct and unnerving personality.  He’s also quite funny at times, especially as the house’s pompous landlord, Geoffrey but he still remains disturbing.

Men makes an interesting companion piece with the Mimi Cave thriller, Fresh from earlier this year.  Like that fine film it features a convincingly troubled yet resilient woman combatting nightmarishly violent and destructive male behaviour.  Also, like Fresh, Men is much better in the build-up than the pay-off and loses some of its momentum towards the end.  This is a fairly small quibble, though and Men ranks as one of the more fascinating and disturbing films of the year so far.

Nick’s rating:     

Genre: Horror/ thriller.

Classification: MA15+

Director(s): Alex Garland.

Release date: 16th June 2022.

Running time: 100 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

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