Jessie Buckley faces her trauma head on in gory psychological horror Men
Men is the latest film to be written and directed by Alex Garland, Garland previously wrote and directed cerebral sci fi features Ex Machina and Annihilation but he’s no stranger to scares, having also penned 28 Days Later, Sunshine and The Beach. For this new outing he recruits Jessie Buckley (recently Oscar nominated for Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter) and Shakespearean actor Rory Kinnear (the Bond films, Penny Dreadful.)
Grieving and traumatised Harper (Jessie Buckley) rents a grand country house in a small village for two weeks away from the city. After recently getting out of an abusive marriage she is looking forward to some time away from it all to get her head back together and find some peace. That peace is incrementally eroded and then horrifyingly shattered by a series of encounters with strange men in the village – all of whom are played by Rory Kinnear, though the transformations are convincing enough that it might take you a while to notice. It’s the sort of pastoral horror that convinces me it’s just not safe to ever leave London – there is some WEIRD STUFF happening in the country.
Whilst the marketing and trailers bill Men as a horror it avoids many of the tropes typical of the modern genre, taking a full hour of blistering tension before it gets to the truly horrifying stuff. It’s subtle and unnerving with shots that linger slightly too long, making its audience expect a jump scare that never actually comes. Voyeuristic camera angles and an intrusive choral score create a mounting sense of unease as we wait for it all to blow up, and internally scream at Harper to get the hell out of there before it inevitably does.
And when it does? ‘Bloody hell’ was really the only term that came to mind. The climactic scene see’s Harper trapped in the country house at night as she comes under attack by all the weird men she has encountered. Men transforms from ‘creepy undertones’ to straight up primal body horror that’s enough to have Cronenberg or Carpenter wincing. It’s a visceral, grotesque nightmare.
Much like with his previous films Garland gives his audience an awful lot to unpack but no straight answers as to what the hell it all means – each individual viewer likely to walk away with a different interpretation. Apart from rather obviously being a treatise on toxic masculinity, as in much of Garland’s work some of Men’s key themes are isolation, fear of the unknown and modernity vs tradition. But where Ex Machina and Annihilation dipped into AI and aliens, Men features folklore at its centre. Reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby and The Wicker Man there’s no simple modern logic that could explain it all away. Well, unless it’s all in her head, but where’s the fun in that?
Jessie Buckley is simply fantastic as Harper capturing such a range of emotion, her ‘backstory’ scenes with her husband particularly terrifying and heart breaking before we even get to the scary parts. The Irish actress is having a stellar year as alongside her 2022 Oscar nomination she also won an Olivier for playing Sally Bowles in the West End revival of Cabaret. Inching her way towards household name status Buckley really is one of the finest actors of her generation, and Men is just the latest in a string of clever collaborations with unique creators.
Men is not for the faint of heart. I saw it in the middle of the day in a near empty cinema and felt uncomfortable, jumpy and slightly disorientated by the end of it but it’s for these very reasons I found it truly excellent. A horror that is genuinely imaginative, original and beautifully put together whilst still being quite deeply disturbing is a rare thing indeed. It’s a fantastic achievement in film and a sure-fire talking point – just make sure you’re in the mood for ick before watching.
Men is out in UK cinemas on 1st June 2022
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