I’m going to be honest here. Can we be honest? My love/hate relationship with the horror output of studio A24 is well-documented at this point. But like any glutton for punishment, I can’t stay away. I keep thinking the next film is going to be different; this time the high-minded, obtuse, and pretentious approach to one of my favorite genres will work. This time it’ll be better. I went into Men like this, and once again I walked out of a theatre not sure if I should be impressed or disappointed. Or both.
The pitch reel for Men is relatively simple. Harper (Jessie Buckley) is heading to a rented cottage in the English countryside after her relationship with her husband ends tragically. Things immediately start feeling off when she meets the house’s caretaker, an odd and awkward man named Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear). She soon finds herself being stalked and targeted by the men in the small town nearby, all also played by Kinnear, and realizes her life may be in danger.
WARNING! This review contains mild spoilers!
There really is very little plot beyond that. The film seems to take place over the course of no more than two days, although it’s difficult to tell because the film favors atmosphere over narrative. Everything unfolds in a dream-like fashion, often making the audience wonder if things are really happening or if Harper is hallucinating. This question is definitively answered by the end of the film, and it ends up being at least a little disappointing regardless of what side of the debate you found yourself.
Part of what makes the film so frustrating is writer/director Alex Garland’s refusal to spell things out diegetically. We’re never given answers as to what’s going on or why all the men in town have the same face. In interviews, Garland has explained that this is intentional. In a way, it’s could be seen as admirable. Garland trusts his audience to be intelligent enough to form their own analysis, clever enough to put the clues together. However, it could also be seen as a major cop-out, with Garland throwing a bunch of random imagery together and claiming there’s substance there.
And honestly, it seems like there’s both going on here. Things definitely don’t add up on their own, and it takes a fair amount of extra work to parse out what exactly Garland is trying to say. There are a few obvious themes here, such as the insidiousness of toxic masculinity, but the film is so dense that giving such a surface read of it feels weak. It’s a challenging film in the sense that it seems to be daring the audience to pick it apart.
It doesn’t help that Garland throws around a ton of symbolism that often doesn’t connect or is so blatant that it feels cheap. About halfway through the film, Harper goes into the local church with has a pedestal in the middle that features a Green Man face on one side and a sheela na gig on the other. It’s intriguing at first, because it hints at a Wicker Man, pagan horror vibe, but Garland never does much with it until the end of the film. On the other hand, the first thing Harper does when arriving at the rental house is pick an apple off the tree in the garden and take a large bite out of it. Subtle, Garland.
Despite all of this horror-thesis symbology, the film is legitimately frightening at times, especially in the first half. During her first walk in the country, Harper encounters a tunnel, and she delights herself by playing with the echoes inside and harmonizing with her own voice. Then she sees a figure at the end rushing toward her and she flees. From that moment on, every time we look at Harper from the outside of the house, we wonder if she’s being stalked. The camera becomes a voyeur, and by extension so does the audience. It escalates the tension in an intentionally uncomfortable manner, and it works very well.
The score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow helps tremendously. It’s a waking ambient nightmare of a soundtrack, and it’s honestly one of the best parts of the film. Salisbury and Barrow have done the music for all of Garland’s films, and even if the film itself is often difficult to understand, the music rings true. Ghostly and reverberated voices, hesitant and atonal strings that keep threatening to resolve but never really do, an inversion of religious themes. It’s remarkably effective and unquestionably hypnotic.
The film is anchored by a solid performance by the two leads, as well. We never find out much about Harper beyond her current situation; her character is essentially defined by her trauma and nothing else. However, Buckley manages to make Harper a very sympathetic and complex character with a very grounded but still emotional performance. It’s tempting to see Harper as merely a symbol for the film’s exploration of gendered violence, but Buckley is so captivating in the role that she forces you to see her as a person first and a symbol second.
But it’s Rory Kinnear that really shines in this film, seeing as how he’s playing nearly every other character we see. Kinnear differentiates his roles with everything from make-up and prosthetics to accent and timbre. While consciously you can recognize that it’s Kinnear playing all these parts, on some level it becomes highly unsettling and uncanny. Which of course is the entire point. Harper never really acknowledges the fact that all the men in town look alike, but as the film goes on you can tell she’s been rattled by that fact.
Garland is showing us that every man is capable of being subsumed by toxic masculinity, no matter their position or status, and Kinnear plays with that fact differently in every single role. Geoffrey treats Harper as a “little lady” in a kind of old-school, ostensibly well-meaning kind of country chauvinism, whereas the local cop merely ignores Harper’s clear distress and her claims of being stalked. And neither approach things the same as the local vicar, who doesn’t honor Harper’s boundaries but slips quietly between them, relying on his status to disarm her.
But not all of the men in town come off as well. While practical effects and good ol’ honest-to-goodness acting help Kinnear with most of his characters, one of the men Harper deals with is a young boy with Kinnear’s face (and unaltered voice) digitally imposed onto him. It’s meant to be unsettling but honestly just looks ridiculous. Even worse is the only other real character in the film, Harper’s friend Riley, played through video chat by Gayle Rankin. Rankin does her best, but her dialogue feels wholly artificial and often cringe-worthy. Every time she pops into the story, the mood gets derailed.
And derailment is something Garland doesn’t need any help with here. The first two acts of the film ramp up the tension slowly, closing in on the audience so imperceptibly that you don’t realize there are hands around neck until it’s too late. The third act, however, threatens to flush all that down the drain. The supernatural elements that were only hinted at before become omnipresent, and the final scenes of the film devolve into an extended body horror sequence that transcends into the absurd before it becomes tedious and overwrought. Fans of David Cronenberg and Takashi Miike have seen far more creative scenes, and both directors don’t feel the need to repeatedly shove the audience’s face in the carnage to get their point across. Like many A24 horror films, the third act goes from 0 to WTF in 10 seconds, threatening to destroy any goodwill the film has built up to that point.
Men feels both obvious and obscure in equal measures. There’s enough surface metaphor and tension to hook the viewer in, but Garland challenges us to find deeper meanings than the ones we can easily see. Whether or not there are actually answers hidden in Garland’s miasma of horror iconography or not is up for debate. His graduate thesis approach to the idea that horror should say something about the terrors we face in the world is admirable, but sometimes all you want is just a good scare to jolt you awake.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / C+