The Edenic imagery that propels writer and director Alex Garland’s latest feature film, “Men,” forward shows up early on. Having just arrived at the lavish country home she booked a stay at in order to rest and heal from the death of her husband, Harper (Jessie Buckley) strolls into the estate’s lush garden, plucks an apple from a tree, and takes a bite. She is soon after jokingly chastised for eating “forbidden fruit” by Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), the property’s landlord who is that seemingly harmless sort of awkward. Harper is haunted by the memory of her last encounter with her husband James (Paapa Essiedu). The opening scene of “Men” reveals the final piece of it, James falling from a window as Harper, nose bloodied, watches him fly past from inside their apartment, both screaming. Flashbacks throughout the film unveil the lead-up to this incident, as James, infuriated by Harper’s desire to divorce him, wanting to take back some of her own life, threatens to take his own so that the guilt and the knowledge that she drove him to it will forever weigh on her conscience. Whether or not James committed suicide or accidentally fell is a question that plagues Harper.
But that question mark surrounding the demise of her apparently abusive husband isn’t one that is clearly answered or even thoroughly explored by Garland, whose previous films “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation” also placed women at the center of their stories, while tackling themes such as grief, depression, free will, consciousness in a male-dominated society with significantly more nuance. “Men” certainly has a lot going for it. As with his previous work, most notably the sci-fi movie “Annihilation,” Garland combined vibrant natural environments with queasy, horrific images. That carries over into “Men,” as Harper navigates the idyllic countryside she’s staying in, a girlish grin on her face as she skips through fields and sings into a tunnel, delighting at the sound of her echo. But that same landscape is populated by crumbling buildings and decaying animals, and a pleasant walk quickly transforms into something infinitely more nerve-wracking when Harper finds herself being stalked by a naked man. Even the home she is staying in takes on different shades depending on the situation. Its initial charm and beauty is soon replaced by a the feeling of vulnerability the home’s many, many windows provide, giving those you’d rather keep out a way to look in.
Garland also has a firm grasp on creating suspense, revealing little clues to the audience before his protagonist that give the film an unsettling tone early on, one that only becomes increasingly uneasy as the threats surrounding Harper mount, culminating in a freaky bloodbath of a climax. These threats take the form of the men who inhabit the village, all played by Kinnear, signaling the movie’s “all men are the same” messaging that is hammered home by the scene in the finale that will likely generate the most conversation. Each man, in some fashion, directs some sort of abuse or blame toward Harper, the one whose sudden appearance in their town leads them astray. A young boy calls her a “dumb bitch” after she declines to play hide-and-seek with him. A vicar who Harper confides in after he seems to want to help her blames her first for James’ death, and later for driving him into a sexual frenzy. The police officer shows little concern for Harper’s fears over the naked man following her. Even the affable Geoffrey engages in some micro-aggressions, condescendingly reminding her as he gives her a tour of the house to be careful what she flushes down the toilet. The only other women Harper encounters throughout the film are a female officer (an interesting and perplexing inclusion that is perhaps trying to imply the complicity of some women in men’s abuse, while granting Harper a false sense of security) and her sister Riley (Gayle Rankin), who Harper frequently chats with on the phone.
“Men” is largely propped up by the stellar performances by Buckley and Kinnear. Buckley has yet to miss, and her penchant for taking unpredictable swings continues here, clearly conveying Harper’s unease and despair even in areas where the script is lacking. Kinnear, getting to play many different levels of creepiness, takes the film from blackly comic to thoroughly frightening territory, and he admirably imbues each character he embodies with traits that both distinguish and unify them. But there isn’t a lot to unpack in the story behind all its gleefully weird elements and beautiful cinematography. “Men” is a surprisingly thin dissection of surviving as a woman in a men’s world, although regardless of how much empathy or good intentions he possesses, a critique of straight while males coming from a straight white male is never going to authentically encompass a woman’s experience. Harper is reduced to a symbol of female suffering that there is no escape from; the men are reduced to only wanting one thing. James is lumped into this group, and we never see or learn more about him or his and Harper’s relationship outside of that one final moment they share (again, making it difficult to get a strong grasp on Harper’s emotions surrounding his loss). The casting of a Black actor in this role adds another, more problematic layer to the scenario that Garland perhaps did not intend, but it feels like a disturbing racial stereotype to portray a Black man solely first as a perpetrator of violence (especially opposite a white woman), and later a victim of violence.
Garland packs a lot more into “Men”, including some symbols that seem to connect the men’s behavior to something more primal, but as fun as it is to pull things like that apart, he doesn’t have enough of merit to say to make it worth the effort. “Men” is coincidentally being released in the midst of a very fraught time for women’s rights in America; perhaps that’s partially why its finale feels so utterly hopeless, and in a way, predictable, despite the confounding climax masking some of that. There is some broad truth to be found in “Men,” but its thin characterizations of both men and women dull any impact it otherwise may have had.
“Men” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 100 minutes. Rated R.