Men (Film Review) – Alex Garland's long-anticipated follow-up to Annihilation is finally reaching our screens. His first directorial effort, Ex Machina, gave us understated, chilling sci-fi that asked as many questions as it answered. Annihilation asked further questions around what it means to be human, and how much of your form can be lost before you fully lose yourself. Men represents a sidestep for Garland, a foray into Folk Horror. No longer anchored by theoretical science so much as magic, the trailers promise something unsettling, bizarre, and incredible. And in that respect, it truly delivers.
Harper (Jessie Buckley) is mourning the sudden death of her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu). Mourning perhaps isn't the right word here, he was abusive, and she was in the process of divorcing him. But the closeness of that death to certain other events mean that his death lingers over her. Constantly sitting in the peripherals of her mind tormenting her with guilty feelings, and fear, in between her attempts to embrace and respond to her newfound freedom with euphoria.
She uses this freedom to take a holiday in the English countryside. It's not unusual for those from London to see visiting other places as a step back in time, and she is no different. The most familiar thing for her in her surroundings is a teenage boy swearing at her.
Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy embrace the subtle beauty of the English countryside. As Harper walks along an abandoned railway line, rain begins to fall and the greens of the grass and trees around her seem to heighten and surround her. Wrapping her in this feeling of old England, which is at times both disturbing and compelling. She visits a church, which like so many bears the historical pagan symbols of the Green Man and Sheela Na Gig, alongside the more secular images.
Each of the places she visits seems to introduce her to a new, odd, male character, all played by Rory Kinnear. Geoffrey, the owner of the house she stays in seems the most benevolent. But he and all the others seem anchored in patriarchal language and trends, with varying malevolence and vicious responses.
Perhaps the most successful aspect of Men is the use of Jessie Buckley's incendiary singing voice. Her foray into an echoey tunnel and the way the sound is played with here, which then continues to echo through the film, marks the moment when she begins to connect with her surroundings. A prayer to the Green Man in a sense, which then turns to fear as she runs from it.
Where it begins to fail perhaps, is in the literalness with which you can interpret the subtext. There's not really a metaphor here for the most part, at least not in the first two acts. It's a clear reference to “not all men”, represented on screen in a way so obvious that it's almost shouting at you.
Folk horror is a strange beast, so connected with the land it originates from it often doesn't make a lick of sense. And Men is no different. The final act is, testing. And that's an understatement. Certain elements feel underdeveloped, not fully explored, and unresolved. We are never fully told what is going on. Whether that represents a strength or a weakness to you as a viewer, rests entirely on personal taste, the final act is likely to be incredibly divisive.
There is a sense perhaps that Garland maybe struggled to develop an ending for his film, and so went for the full-on body horror approach that will have so many jaws on the floor that it will at least make an impact even if it's utter nonsense. Or perhaps there is a deeper meaning here that will reveal itself in subsequent viewings. It's not the first time that has happened with his stories, and it's unlikely to be the last.
Men is showing in cinemas now.