'Men' review: Alex Garland's unpleasant (and messy) exploration of toxic masculinity
Courtesy of A24
Living in a world where white older men are deciding what females can do with their bodies, Alex Garland’s mind bending and unpleasant folk horror trifecta “Men” feels, for all the wrong reasons, timely. Which makes sense coming from a director who puts women front and center in all his films. “Ex Machina,” the director's fierce debut, was about an A.I. robot, played by Alicia Vikander, tethered to her male creator until she wasn’t; “Annihilation” took it a step further and threw Natalie Portman and her crew of badass females into a cancerous sci-fi bubble that imploded on itself and tested the speakers of movie theaters everywhere.
Garland isn’t a stranger to the world of toxic masculinity and “Men” doesn’t even try to hide its influence. It’s in the title. Sure, “Men” might not say anything audiences don’t already know about the cycle of women being gaslit and abused by their oppressors, but Garland has established through his filmography a clear understanding of the female gaze and he’s found an excellent muse in Jessie Buckley. Buckley, a seasoned pro who’s ascension as one of the more prolific actresses in a generation has been insanely rewarding, unloads a brevity of emotions throughout the film. She plays Harper, a widow trying to make peace around an unforgettable tragedy. Nestled in the English countryside, far away from civilization, Harper hopes to find balance in her livelihood and recuperate, but something tells me the crimson painted walls and matted aspect ratio, surly designed to amplify and contain the ensuing madness, sends a different message.
Enter Rory Kinnear who plays a variety of male characters, thanks to immaculate makeup, prosthetics, vocal dexterity and digital enhancements, sent to torment the anxious riddled Harper at every corner. Whether it’s the naked fella dwelling in a nearby forest trail or the local police chief, Garland strategically has Kinnear locked and loaded whenever Harper tries outrunning the ramifications of her past. It’s an obvious goal Garland doesn’t shy away from by having the same actor perform these roles, sending a clear signal that, no matter the facade or personality, men still find a way to stay in charge, and if you resist, well you’re useless. It’s a bit absurd even by the already batshit standards Garland’s previous efforts set for themselves, this one teetering on the edge of meta with the incorporation of Buckley and Kinnear’s vocals in the hypnotic sound design.
The less you know about “Men” going in the better, but there’s a-lot of body horror fuckery happening in the final twenty minutes that would make David Cronenberg blush as Garland doubles down on several pretensions allegories that won’t sway anyone’s opinion so much as reaffirm their stance. Showcasing life’s messiness doesn’t come without consequence, even if that means polarizing folks with half-baked takes on English folklore, biblical undertones, and, of course, the creation of man. What’s intriguing about “Men” is how Garland doesn’t sympathize with Harper and the beguiling individuals who intrude within her orbit (though everyone could use a hug) but seeks validation for grief stricken individuals and their internal trauma. It’s a topsy-turvy metaphor occasionally lost in the jumbled execution (did I mention the climax takes a major turn into WTFville?) but the grounded ambiguity offers a nuanced perspective that’s both ingenious and frustrating. Such is life.
MEN is now playing in theaters.