Horror Review: Men (2022)
There will be spoilers…
There is a lot to be said about Men (2022), but also strangely nothing concrete. The film was written and directed by Alex Garland, most known for Annihilation, 28 Days Later and Ex Machina.
Men stars Jessie Buckley, whose character decides to retreat from London for a vacation after experiencing a deep and unsettling trauma. Which is revealed to us in flashbacks throughout the film. Buckley’s character rents a picturesque home in the British countryside, owned by a bumbling but charming local man. I absolutely love the setup of this film. We immediately are thrown into the intense tragedy that our protagonist endures, and are immediately drawn to her. The tension builds from the first second of the film and pulls us deeper and deeper throughout the first hour. Each character that we meet in this lovely town sets us more on edge. No one feels safe in a way. There were several “oh shit!” moments where I literally ducked behind the seat in front of me. But I’m finding it hard to understand the message that Garland is trying to send.
The only meaning that I can extrapolate from the ending of the film is…a let down. Not necessarily the message itself but the way it’s delivered. I think the film is very clearly expressing the flaws of “men.” Or at least the flawed dynamics between problematic, abusive men and their female victims. There is a distinct moment in the film when the power shifts from these horrifying townsmen (all played by Rory Kinnear) to our protagonist. It’s the same moment when viewers may let out a nervous laugh.
As each Kinnear character is birthing the next, in a grotesque and bizarre body horror sequence, they lose their control over us. I was no longer hiding behind my hands, but scratching my head. The most literal meaning that I can come to, is that men pass down and perpetuate these flaws. Flaws that are exemplified by each character, the lusty Vicar, the violent teenager, the problematic police officer…the abusive husband. But I can’t accept that Garland was going for something this obvious. And the very specific choice of a male birthing sequence being the very thing that disarms these men…has to be inviting us to think about this in a different way?
In my opinion, there are extremely successful aspects of this film. Jessie Buckley’s performance for one is mesmerizing. And the way Garland creates and holds us in tension for an hour is admirable. The cinematography is gorgeous and the local characters have a unique and sometimes hilarious charm. And there are unmistakable folk horror elements that are fun to watch. The horror unfolds in an intense and jarring way for first time viewers and the use of sound is incredibly unique. There are moments of extreme silence and moments of noisy chaos. At one point Buckley sings tones into a tunnel, which later turns into the haunting soundtrack of the film (brilliant!). I like Kinnear’s performances and the fear of being in a strange place with a naked stalker from the woods. I loved the use of color, the harsh sunset orange of the flashback scenes and the lush green of the forrest. I even like that the wounds Buckley inflicts on the men match the wounds her husband sustains when he jumps out of a window to his death. Though I’m not exactly sure what the connection is.
What I’m missing though is the meaning behind the ending. We assume that these events actually happened in the world of the film, because after the title card at the end we see blood on our protagonist's face and her car is still smashed. But maybe they don’t? At one point the camera takes us into the eye socket of a decaying deer, so who is to say? The lingering, sparkling shots on nature almost add a supernatural element to some moments. And certainly the references to the Pagan Green Man and his intoxicating dandelion fronds could be interpreted in many different ways.
The most frustrating moment might be when the birthing sequence ends by producing our protagonist's dead husband, played by Paapa Essiedu. They briefly hang out together on the couch, she now seems totally unafraid. But there is no conclusion to this interaction. She is holding an axe and the scene cuts just as he tells her all he wants is her love.
What does it all mean? Perhaps it’s the sort of message that becomes clearer with a rewatch. But it’s certainly a film with a message. Everything about it is specific and pointed, that is clear. Even the teenager wearing the women's mask is a purposeful choice. But Garland is making audiences (or maybe just me) work a bit too hard to connect the dots on this one. I will be anxiously awaiting his explanation.