Men review: psychological terror and grotesque thrills

Men, from director Alex Garland
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Men is another home run for director Alex Garland, who leans into high and low brow aspects of the horror genre – here’s our review. 

Alex Garland deals in unforgettable finales, from Ex Machina's last act to the strangely beautiful sequence at the end of Annihilation. The conclusion to his latest directorial effort Men blows both of them out of the water. It’s destined to provoke plenty of debate while living rent-free in every viewer’s head for weeks. With body horror at its heart in the movie anyway, there will be justified Cronenberg comparisons aplenty. But this one’s quite something.

Yet enough of the ending, let’s get back to the start. When the film introduces protagonist Harper (Jessie Buckley), she’s reeling from the recent suicide of her abusive husband James (I May Destroy You breakout Paapa Essiedu). In an attempt to reset herself, she has booked a few days at a secluded country retreat owned by a frightfully posh, gammon-faced gent called Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear). It soon becomes clear that there’s something very wrong amid the verdant woodland, not least as the nearby village seems to be populated entirely by men with the same face – all played by Kinnear, regardless of age.


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Men has been marketed as a folk horror – something of a speciality for US distributor A24 – but those expecting an all-out nightmare may be caught off-guard. For the most part, Garland’s film exists in an uncomfortable world of gradually broiling unease, permeated by the sense that something is somehow off-kilter and out of place. Some of it is obvious – a naked man silently watching Harper from afar – while even the most innocuous of male characters is capable of a snide, troubling micro-aggression. Garland’s thesis is the opposite of the oft-repeated #NotAllMen defence. Here, every bloke is in some way a part of the tapestry which puts women in danger, whether they’re overtly toxic or simply an ignorant product of a life lived within the deeply entrenched patriarchy.

Kinnear, who plays multiple roles, is the perfect casting choice – capable of embodying genial levity and stark aggression, often within the same scene. Sometimes he’s a lank-haired vicar and occasionally his face floats awkwardly on the body of a teenager, with Garland deliberately diving into the uncanny valley. Whether Kinnear is asked to be slimy and serpentine or avuncular and jolly, he has the skill to make each of his myriad characters distinct while also ensuring they palpably come from the same root. And root is very much the right word, given the focus cinematographer Rob Hardy places on the bold, vibrant greens of rural England – not to mention the recurring motif of rebirth deity The Green Man.

Away from Kinnear’s necessarily showy work, Buckley delivers the sort of subtle, nuanced lead performance we have come to expect from her in recent years. There’s a joy to scenes in which Harper relishes the escapism provided by the uncomplicated sounds and sights of nature, as if grounding herself in the world again – a contrast to the sterile, forbidding London we glimpse in flashbacks to her married life. Buckley exudes warmth, but there’s a steel to Harper – a clear manifestation of the walls she has built to protect herself from the trauma of her recent past. It’s a mature and controlled performance, but Buckley is also unafraid to provide a note of ‘scream queen’ histrionics when the time comes and she’s retreating through the claustrophobic confines of a blood-red corridor.

Like much of the best horror cinema over the years, Men marries intellectual stimulation and psychological terror with full-blooded, grotesque thrills. The film is another home run for Garland as a writer-director with real intelligence and punch, not to mention a surprising undercurrent of dark humour to offset the intensity of its subject matter. While the movie initially seems to slot into the squirm-inducing category of “elevated horror”, it nods its head liberally to the chaotic, latex monstrosities of the 1980s as much as the genre’s modern touchstones. While some more recent filmmakers seem almost fearful of their work being labelled as straight horror, Garland leans right in to provide a blood-soaked embrace for the most high and lowbrow facets of the genre.

The director’s big ideas this time might not be quite as fully formed as those in Ex Machina or Annihilation, but Men certainly delivers on the satirical promise of its title. And then there’s that audacious, immediately divisive final act. It quite simply has to be seen to be believed.

Men is in cinemas from 1st June.

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