Midway through “Men,” the haunting psychological thriller from writer/director Alex Garland, a vicar (Rory Kinnear) asks Harper (Jessie Buckley): “Do you prefer things to be comfortable or real?” This film is rarely comfortable, and what exactly is true will be up to viewers to decide.
“Men” opens with a hypnotic, dreamlike episode where Harper, looking out the window, sees a man (Paapa Essiedu) fall to his death. It is soon revealed that the man was James, Harper’s husband. He had threatened to kill himself in response to her divorce petition. James told Harper he wanted to kill himself so she would be forced to live with the guilt. But did he really fall and die or did he accidentally slip?
Garland is simply precise in the way his characters speak and he is even more precise in the images he composes.
Guilt may be what motivates Harper to leave London and stay in a “dream country house”. But his efforts to heal from his trauma are hardly restful. Biting into an apple she plucks from the tree on the estate’s lawn, one can certainly attribute a sinister meaning to her actions. Even the caretaker of the house, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), jokingly mentions that she eats “forbidden fruit”.
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Garland is nothing if not precise in the way his characters speak and he is even more precise in the images he composes, which range from stunningly beautiful to simply startling water ripples – a very bloody and very graphic shot of ‘a severed hand that looks incredibly painful.
Men (Kevin Baker/A24)
“Men” is often unsettling but not necessarily in the expected way, which is largely to the film’s credit. Early on, Harper takes a walk in the nearby woods and has a great time echoing sounds in a tunnel. But then she sees a man in the distance and runs away from him, getting a bit lost. Is it real or did Alice fall down a rabbit hole? Harper takes a photo in a field and a fully naked man (Rory Kinnear in multiple role) appears in the photo, disturbing her. That he later follows her home and torments her, prompts Harper to call the police. The episode also triggers a vivid image of James impaled on a fence.
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As masterful as Garland is with her precision, it can get a little pretentious… If only viewers could bother to figure it out.
Harper is haunted, and Buckley expresses her anxiety with big, shining eyes or twisting her mouth into a pout. When she moans in pain in a pew, viewers can feel her heartbreak flowing through them. The actress, who was outstanding in everything from ‘Beast’ and ‘Wild Rose’ to ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ and ‘The Lost Daughter’, gives another performance of bravery going from villain to victim in the divorce story and goes from powerless to powerful in the horror story. (A long and disturbing sequence features her alone in the house as a last girl, brandishing a knife as someone or something tries to grab her.) Buckley commands onscreen because she projects an air of confidence even when she’s most scared.
But as masterful as Garland is with his precision, he can get a little pretentious. There’s an episode featuring a decomposing dead deer that can be filmed beautifully – the camera dips into the animal’s eye socket – but it folds in on itself. There are dazzling images, courtesy of Rob Hardy, Garland’s ace cinematographer, of the naked man adorning himself with leaves or blowing dandelion seeds, as well as mystical, prodigious shots of stone faces that must all mean Something. If only viewers could be bothered to fix the problem.
Men (Kevin Baker/A24)
One of the problems with “Men” is that it’s so ambitious and ambiguous that it’s easier to let the movie take its course and think about it later, if at all. That’s not to say the drama isn’t intriguing; it is absolutely seductive because it changes form through time and genres. What’s wrong with a boy who wants Harper to play hide and seek and calls her a “dumb bitch” when she refuses? And what really happens when Harper sees things and hears things that may or may not be real? Of course, it’s impressive to see Rory Kinnear appear as half a dozen different characters in the local pub when Harper goes for a drink. And there are two (if not more) WTF episodes later in the film that are sure to be talked about and admired for their boldness and indelible imagery. But what exactly is Garland saying here?
“Men” is certainly a commentary on gender inequality, mental health and depression, and there are points about how men and women communicate, as well as issues of power and control. in love and relationships. (One of the scariest moments in the film has a male character asking Harper to lose his virginity and describing how he imagines it). But ideas about survivor guilt and dealing with trauma seem to get a bit lost among all the oddities. The characters’ motivations are unclear, which may be deliberate, but it’s also murky.
Garland, however, delights in teasing and teasing viewers. He fills his film with surreal moments that counterbalance some of the harsher realities he portrays. He has constructed an icy fever dream that bewitches as much as it confuses.
“Men” opens in theaters May 20. Watch a trailer below, via YouTube.
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