As inscrutable as it is, at times, terrifying, writer-director Alex Garland’s Men (★★★☆☆) doesn’t aim for perfect clarity in its nightmarish vision of a woman alone in a country house being stalked by strangers. The movie doesn’t demand to be concisely understood or interpreted. It’s a funhouse fright-fest designed to creep audiences the hell out, and at that it should succeed.
Early on, Garland — whose Ex-Machina thrilled sci-fi fans, and whose Annihilation left many befuddled — lures us briefly into thinking Men might plot a familiar path down old terror road.
Jessie Buckley, Oscar-nominated for her brutally honest performance in The Lost Daughter, is equally compelling here as Harper Marlowe, a Londoner who takes to the English countryside for a two-week solo retreat.
Harper is grieving the death of her ex-husband, yet feeling hopeful that a peaceful sojourn in quaint village Cotson should be restorative, as she tells friend Riley (Gayle Rankin) over the phone.
The film revels for a relaxed moment in soothing breezes, bathing in the quietude of nature. A peaceful drive over winding, empty roads, a lazy walk in the woods interrupted by a sudden rain shower, Harper in her wool overcoat and chic collection of chunky sweaters… it all seems so simple.
But Garland has more up his sleeve than meandering on the moors, or just exploring the stark vulnerability of a woman alone in a strange and unfamiliar village. Flashbacks gradually reveal the true, tragic measure of Harper’s pain over the end of her marriage to James (Paapa Essiedu).
In scenes from their sad, bitter parting, James is a troubled narcissist, a soul-sucking drain on any possible joy they might hold in their lives.
Essiedu, heartbreakingly good and funny in I May Destroy You, is stuck here enacting only the character’s relentless negativity. A blunt tool for sharpening the knife’s edge hanging over Harper, departed James triggers her fear, however unjustified, that somehow she’s brought these horrors on herself.
Their pain, and whatever becomes of it, the film suggests, Harper brought it to Cotson with her. Seeking solace, she instead finds herself trapped in a hell of her own guilt. And she’s not alone, as first a trickle, then a deluge of interlopers turn up on the property.
Geoffrey, the local who rented her the estate, eerily resembles Mad Magazine‘s Alfred E. Neuman brought to off-putting life.
The village vicar is of the sort to scold women for their “power” to engender impure thoughts in the fragile minds of men. And, outside a decaying, seemingly abandoned structure at the edge of the forest, Harper finds a stark-naked stranger staring silently back at her.
Each of these men are the same man, in a manner of speaking. And every man in Cotson bears the face of one man: Rory Kinnear (The Imitation Game), who, through a combination of make-up, visual effects, and ACTING, darling, embodies every male kook in town, including a schoolboy who gallivants around the village in a plastic Marilyn Monroe mask. Unsettling in every form, Kinnear is marvelous.
By the time a viewer catches on, if they do, it might just register as darkly hilarious — until Harper is under attack, and someone’s getting their arm sliced in half, with excruciating slowness. The gore is mostly contained to the film’s flipping crazy finale, which doesn’t set out to explain whether Harper is beset by bizarre manifestations of her troubled mind and heavy heart, or this is merely a filmmaker’s questionable statement on life in rural English villages.
Garland clarifies that Harper is not just imagining things — the villagers’ physical presence and malevolent intent is not in question. Neither is the film’s powerful sense of unease, and commitment to stylized yet refined weirdness as a means to scare the pants off people.
Men is Rated R and is playing in theaters nationwide. Visit www.fandango.com.
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