Like previous Garland films, Men is a stylish but thematically bankrupt enterprise that staves off boredom while offering no real thrills or substance.
You could be forgiven for wondering if Annihilation and Ex Machina director Alex Garland’s latest film was some sort of intentional parody of an A24-brand horror movie, or if he really thinks he’s up to something with Men, an agreeably spooky and very well-acted but completely trite exercise that seems so desperate to be considered timely that it loses all focus. Here, Jessie Buckley is Harper. We’re introduced to her as she watches her husband, James, fall past her window on his way down to the pavement. To attempt to exorcise this trauma, she rents a cottage in a quiet and remote English village, where she plans to recuperate in peace for a couple of weeks. On arrival, she’s greeted by Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), the caretaker of the property, who seems like a sweet dope but still manages to be vaguely creepy with his dad jokes and overweening niceness. Things seem fine until a nice stroll through the nearby woods is interrupted by the sight of a scary naked dude (also played by Kinnear), who shows up still later and tries to break into the cottage. Things get increasingly (but not overwhelmingly) surreal after that, with Harper’s further encounters with the village’s titular men revealing that they are not only all sort of jerks, but they’re all played by Kinnear as well.
That sort of thudding literalism infects all of Men, at least when it’s not being incoherently surreal. Harper’s first action upon arriving at the cottage is to pluck an apple from a nearby tree and take a bite, which is enough of a fucking duh moment already, but then Garland absurdly has a character make a reference to “forbidden fruit.” Kinnear’s performance(s) are largely terrific, augmented with makeup or visual effects, but beyond a rather tepid “Yes, All Men” throughline, one wonders what exactly the broader point is. Unfortunately, there isn’t one. That’s compounded by Harper’s character, about which we learn almost materially nothing beyond the fact of her trauma (and some slowly revealed trickles of guilt about what happened). Much like Promising Young Woman, the character is a cipher, admirably a stand-in for every woman who’s ever been called a bitch or dismissed or threatened by some shitty dude, but without any real interiority or agency.
Much as in his last two films, Garland’s preoccupation with placid surfaces broken by snappy camera moves and slightly hallucinatory visuals takes precedence over his half-assed thematic handwringing. Ex Machina completely failed to make its story of how gender politics and physical bodies intersect, instead settling for a dumb thriller about how you shouldn’t be mean to your fuck robot, and Annihilation completely gutted a nebulous, achingly melancholy novel by literalizing every mysterious nuance. Here, there are some amusingly goopy VFX and some very welcomingly unsettling folk horror trappings, but those elements never really tie together, and while one could argue that while the “what actually happened” of it all remains ambiguous, the thematic thrust is unceremoniously dumped at the audience’s feet while declaring itself somehow both revelatory and progressive. Never dull, but also never truly mysterious or enlightening, Men might be most undone by its essential irony: it’s ultimately a movie about a woman beset by puffed-up, entitled men that unfortunately also seems to have been made by one.