Escaping personal demons by fleeing to idyllic bliss, only to find that every fiber of this earthly landscape is coated in a thick layer of inescapable, corrosive rot. There are no boundaries to the suffocatingly widespread sentiments of decay and corruption that serve only to infect everything within their grasp. Be it through regressive institutional teachings, cultural pervasion, or an endless cycle of rebirth and generational indoctrination, those in power continue to perpetuate twisted ideology and egocentric framing that positions them as the victims of an imagined and false dynamic, perpetuating unattainable ideals and imposing their will onto others. The terror within is less so an encroaching force of evil attempting to inflict random violence and more the inescapable and everyday existence within male-dominated society, where around every corner lurks a threatening aura, where a guard can never be let down as a sea of oppressing faces and disconcerting glances and movements dictate a never-ending state of fear.
In an existence dictated by the whims of men, peace can hardly exist for Harper (Jessie Buckley), even moments of quiet reflection are corrupted by the creeping invasive thoughts of her husband James’ dark demise and the moments of rage and escalating abuse leading up to it. The film positions itself as moving away from those horrors but the creeping dread and persistent discomfort is unrelenting and unforgiving, even the drive through the lush verdant countryside is infused with the sense that there’s no safety to be found at the end of the winding roads. Arriving to her destination, an ornately decorated and immaculately landscaped English estate, Harper meets Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), the seemingly harmless but nonetheless offkey and disconcerting rental owner who makes just enough oddly framed offhand comments to imbue a sense of unease from the start. This setup offers an air of familiarity within the confines of contemporary horror, as the last few years have offered an increase in horror angled towards the everyday imposing atmosphere women suffer through in a world that’s constantly threatening them.
What’s equally familiar within these films is an inability to properly convey or pay off this setup, the idea laying a well-intentioned foundation that’s then undermined or lost in the weeds as it progresses, either submitting to a misguided instinct to spiral into blood-soaked nightmares, losing its messaging within its plot devices, or simply becoming too rote and simplistic to land as meaningful sentiment. For all intents and purposes, Men does not fall into any of these traps – perhaps to a fault it is thematically consistent and almost forcibly direct, its symbolism and ultimate wider resonance never much in the way of being subtle or misdirected. Garland is certainly no stranger to crafting strong and intelligent female protagonists, often utilizing them as a way to deconstruct broken and hopeless masculinity.
Ex Machina (2015) is his most effective example of this, crafting a scenario within which an egomaniac, who thinks himself a god, and a helplessly foolish software developer are undone by Ava, crafted as a man’s ideal only to overcome both her creator and the man who thinks himself the deserving recipient of her affections. Though it toes the line of existing within and perpetuating the very framework it tries to dismantle, it remains a whip smart piece of science fiction with precision aim at its thesis. Extending to the women who ventured into the shimmer of Annihilation (2018) and Olivia Thirlby’s Anderson in Dredd (2012) (which Garland produced), his films consistently explore the way male dominated spaces treat women as secondary, a framework that’s then utilized to subvert these concepts through genre cinema. It’s an effective and enticing mode for a filmmaker to be in, and these films never feel as though they’re overstepping into a space Garland doesn’t belong within.
Men reaches a point that begins to overstep, feeling less like a smart inversion of expectations that empowers female protagonists and more like another in a line of films that men shouldn’t be making in the first place. The film is crafted around the way that women suffer through an existence marked by every man in their surrounding exuding a threatening aura, every word edging towards male victimization, every action another in a long list of institutional failures to protect them – and this framing never quite justifies its own existence, a lingering taste of bitterness that this particular story wasn’t crafted from the correct perspective. It offers a difficult contradiction as it simmers in the mind, especially as it remains a brutally effective piece of horror cinema despite it all. As the flower of the film blooms, soaked in crimson with a fascinating blend of folk horror, body horror, and home invasion at its center, it becomes increasingly hypnotic, weaving occult mythology and grotesque violence into its rapidly accelerating insanity.
The dread is potent and saturates the celluloid, constantly maneuvering through an ever-shifting and ethereal space where the film’s final destination is repeatedly shrouded and unattainable, a puzzle you’ll repeatedly attempt to solve until the realization sinks in that you have no idea where any of it is going to end up. Never framed with explicit malice, the imagery of the innocuous and vibrantly colored countryside is often shot with a warm and wide eye, feeling oddly comparable to the reverence with which Iranian cinema holds landscapes, further highlighting the impending terror as violence and dread quietly inserts itself in the corners of the frame. The cosmic isolation bears down as Harper moves through the town, the film’s motif of repetition slowly revealing itself as Rory Kinnear becomes the face of every man, whether a corrupted vicar, an abrasive cop, or a naked man covered in blisters and scars emerging from the woods.
It’s all effectively circular, each of Harper’s experiences of increasing horrors feeding back into her internal battle wrestling with the final moments of James’ life, trying to free herself of the culturally imposed guilt that her actions drove his downfall in any way. As it winds itself up it never loses sight of returning to that final emotional resonance to close Harper’s personal arc, even within the cacophonic nightmare that is the film’s final act, an adrenaline-injected dose of pure insanity that nearly overpowers the rest of the film with its searing imagery. Through all the blood and madness, the thematic bluntness teeters back and forth between being obnoxiously on the nose and effectively straightforward, a hard line to walk that it never quite lands neatly on in either direction, and while its messaging is ultimately well stated it fails to offer anything of particular depth, often revelling in simple notions of the inescapable gravity of male-dominated spaces and the infinite death and rebirth of masculinity as a caustic and destructive force. It’s a frustrating contradiction, a supremely well crafted film with a weak foundation, from a voice that doesn’t belong in the conversation. Between the lines it certainly offers multitudes of avenues to unpack its rich mythological edges, but the surface isn’t quite sharp enough to sell that unpacking as worthwhile. Men may shout its statements full bore with no restraint, but it’s not additive or truly deconstructive, nothing more than an echo returning back to itself in a dark void.