The title of Alex Garland’s third film positively invites an exclamation mark (Men!) or an interjection (Men, eh?) or perhaps simply an implied tutting sound followed by a roll of the eyes (“Men. Tsk”). In common with Lars von Trier’s 2009 cause célèbre Antichrist, Garland’s picture is a fright-fest on the theme of misogyny, combining natural imagery, folklore trappings and buckets of gore.
Both movies open with a person dying in an accidental fall from a high window, photographed in lyrical slow-motion. The grieving party – in Men, this is Harper, played by Jessie Buckley – repairs to a rural getaway for the remainder of the action, where further gruesome sights await, including, in both cases, a dead deer. The remote cabin in Antichrist is called Eden; the rented country house in the Cotswolds village to which Harper flees is unnamed, though there is a plentiful supply of apples on the tree in the garden. Harper helps herself and takes a bite. What could this signal? Other than that the film’s symbolism level has been set to Easy, that is.
Watching from the window is Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), the property’s owner, who gives Harper the tour before handing over “the keys to the castle” even as he assures her that she won’t need to lock her door during her stay. This may be a horror movie, and Harper will in due course be terrorised by assorted invaders, but Geoffrey is right in a manner of speaking. It really doesn’t make any difference whether she locks the door or not, since the monsters that plague her are the ones she brings with her in the form of traumatic memories. These tend not to respect a Chubb.
Her tormentors seem to exist in the stonemasonry at the local church, where carvings of the Green Man and Sheela-na-gig feature prominently. The tormentors are also personified in the figures – among them a silver-haired priest, a hostile child and a pub landlord – who are played, with assorted wigs, teeth and accents, by Kinnear alone. He appears in eight or nine guises if I counted correctly, which would place him in the league of Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets.
Harper’s problem, in short, is men. The death of her husband (Paapa Essiedu), and the hangover from his violence towards her, contaminates the environment, so that all the men she meets come to embody some facet of toxicity. A credit for “researcher on misogyny” appeared at the end of Antichrist, but viewers today may have become more adept at spotting it for themselves, along with the other sorts of behaviour manifested here by the male characters: gas-lighting, mansplaining, victim-blaming, slut-shaming.
Those men who are not individually threatening still behave in a way that facilitates or prolongs Harper’s discomfort. The apparently harmless Geoffrey, who refers to her as a “damsel in distress” and winces at the thought of menstruation while standing in a room with scarlet-painted walls, is a mere cog in a patriarchal machine. The film’s weakness lies not in this depiction of misogyny as ubiquitous but in its failure to build thematically on the conceit. One hundred minutes isn’t an excessive length for a feature by today’s standards, but it feels a whole lot longer with just the one idea behind it.
Garland first found success with his novel The Beach, later filmed by Danny Boyle, but the pictures he has directed as well as written (Ex Machina and Annihilation are the others) can lack a central electrifying component. Ex Machina felt like a TED talk shot in a boutique hotel; Men is more like a thesis masquerading as a movie, which is why its gruesome final scenes come across as inert rather than disturbing. (Garland cribs from Von Trier here, too, this time recalling the ghoulish childbirth scene from the end of The Kingdom.) The sinister and the bizarre are everywhere on screen but it’s odd that the only outright scare occurs when Harper’s video call with her friend Riley (Gayle Hankin) breaks up abruptly, the other woman’s pixelated face thrashing violently like a Francis Bacon ape.
Nothing starring Buckley will ever be a complete loss – this is an actor who could bring definition to the role of a blancmange. Garland’s approach looks unconvincing, however, compared with a film like Midsommar, which pursued a similar line of argument about pernicious male influence without neglecting to be frightening, funny, visionary or original. It can be done. Just not by Men.
“Men” is in cinemas now.