Alex Garland examines misogyny with gonzo shocks and minimal complexity

After a personal trauma, a protagonist retreats to a secluded place to comfort and reconcile inwardly before becoming even more haunted. The setup is familiar from many horror movies, but with Men being a creation of Alex Garland, something more particular hides behind this surface. A mix of the compact thrills of Ex-Machina and the surreal oddities of Annihilation, his latest is delightfully inscrutable at its weirdest moments, but thematically simplistic and underwhelming overall. Using misogyny – both subtly ingrained and its more vicious physicality – as window dressing for allegory-heavy arthouse horror, Men it often feels like he’s only scratching the surface of greater complexity, lightly suggesting rather than genuinely exploring his roughly sketched ideas.

En route to the isolated English countryside after the death of her husband (Paapa Essiedu), Harper (Jessie Buckley) arrives at a tidy and comfortable house she has rented for two weeks from Jerry (Rory Kinnear). Handsome but awkwardly humorous in his dry, quintessentially British banter, Jerry offers a tour of the estate, hinting that something is wrong but raising no red flags for Harper. Garland peels back the layers of their conflict with vivid orange-hued flashbacks to the fateful day her husband died. We learn of his suicide threats against Harper who wants a divorce and repeatedly see footage of him falling to his death; whether it was an accidental slip remains mysterious. As she makes her way through the small village, Harper believes she’s being hunted, and while unnoticed from her character’s perspective, we see Rory Kinnear portray every man (and boy) she meets in the town.

Each male character embraces some form of misogynistic aggression – a belittling priest physically acting inappropriately and blaming the victim, a naked stalker invading his privacy, a police officer ignoring his very valid fears. Garland seeks to make it clear that these everyday horrors lurk in plain sight while playing with horror tropes through rebuttal. When we first see the character of the stalker in full, he stands in the middle of an open field, far removed from our protagonist. When he comes to her house, it’s first played as a shock, but then a hint of humor abounds as he hangs around, looking window to window before being apprehended by the police without a fuss. If these subversions of genre tropes are executed well, it quickly becomes clear that there isn’t much more to Garland’s mind. While there’s no argument in its thesis that women face unprovoked advances at every turn, the execution is rendered quite superficial – particularly in its lack of a deeper characterization of Harper, who defined almost entirely by the quick flashbacks centered on the worst day. of his life. With the patient build-up of tension in this first act, including the contemplative visuals setting up the Eden that is about to fall, there is hope that Garland has more to unravel on the subject of abuse, but this moment does not ever comes as the movie seems to skip a second act and jump straight into a perfect final third.

Raising the level of body horror, Garland grafts the gamble of jaw-dropping and confusing turns of Annihilation‘s finale to this more contained tale, here connecting past traumas resurrected in new forms and suggesting that history has repeated itself cyclically since the biblical foundation of original sin. It’s an ambitious, outrageous climax that seems designed more to stimulate conversation than to provide some semblance of catharsis to Harper’s suffering. And while Garland suspends such a resolution – including a final moment that nods to get out but it’s far less fulfilling – it’s the bold imagery of what I see that compels more than any character-focused emotional release.

Despite quite a bit to work with, Buckley brings an intense sense of grief in his isolation and growing paranoia, playing against a type of horror tropes for the final girls. Giving clearly engaged performances, Rory Kinnear strikes the difficult balance between chewing up landscapes with humor and creepiness with his cast of characters. Cinematographer Rob Hardy, continuing his collaborations with Garland, brings a certain vibrancy though the clean digital sheen leads to a lack of tangibility, both when highlighting the natural earthly wonders of the first half and the latter’s gonzo horror elements. Garland has enough formal chops that Men is never painful, but this liveliness ultimately does not serve the mixer of mixed ideas. The film is all the better for not overexplaining its gleefully outrageous final moments, but one wishes the journey to get there was handled with more consideration.

Men opens in theaters May 20.

Sharon D. Cole