Alex Garland’s first two films in the director chair were among my favorite films the year they were released. 2014’s “Ex Machina” is a modern sci-fi classic and 2018’s “Annihilation” was a challenging journey into another dimension.
He’s followed those two heady trips with MEN.
Less commercial, more challenging, and ultimately far less enjoyable than his previous works, at least half of MEN delivers a fascinating experience.
Jessie Buckley plays Harper, a recent widow haunted by memories of her husband’s recent suicide. James (Paapa Essiedu) threatens his wife that he’s going to kill himself but ultimately what happens could have been an accident. Garland sprinkles expanded memories of their last moments together throughout the film, revealing details that define his death.
Harper has arrived in a quiet, beautiful little town in the English countryside to reflect and recover, seeking some measure of solace.
She meets the landlord of her rental, a quirky man named Geoffrey. Rory Kinnear (Skyfall) plays the man as a stack of socially awkward quips, giving Harper a tour of the home and the grounds while offering odd conversation.
Almost before she can unpack, Harper sees a naked man in her back yard. We see him long before she does as he peers through the floor to ceiling windows. It’s a patented Garland moment, creating real dread that keeps building far past any comfortable level.
Composers Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow have partnered with the director on all his films, and they are top of their game with their score for MEN. Male voices slide from one pitch to another, seeming to fall away from us or encircle the action.
The beautiful garden surrounding the house begins to feel haunted and evil as the naked stranger returns, along with some other very bizarre characters, all played by Kinnear thanks to some terrific makeup and a bit of CGI that seems just enough off to be intentional.
Kinnear played MI6 Agent Tanner in all of Craig’s OO7 films. Nothing in that effective, buttoned up role prepares you for the sheer diversity of ODD that he brings to each of the multitude of characters in the tiny village.
Perhaps the most despicable is his role as a local priest who seems more bound to convince Harper that she somehow failed her husband and drove him to his death, rather than providing any real comfort.
Harper’s encounter with him pushes her over the edge.
Descending into a very dark meditation on trauma, grief and masculinity, MEN straddles the line between horror and mystery, challenging you to question just who all these guys in town are.
The last twenty minutes is a bizarre, bloody meltdown that pushes every boundary.
One graphic, flesh ripping birth is a lot to look at, so Garland piles another one on top, and then another. Like Kubrick’s conclusion of “The Shining” he pulls you relentlessly through the house and into the surrounding gardens, daring you to watch what he’s showing and assaulting you with sound if you dare to look away.
Unfortunately, Garland slips out of Kubrick territory and slithers into the same unrestrained, “throw-everything-against-the-wall and smash its skull in” mentality that Darren Aronofsky did in his 2017 film “Mother!” Just as Aronofsky did to Jennifer Lawrence in that mess, Garland drags Buckley down every ring of hell, but strands her in a conclusion that feels inadequate.
I can’t remember the last time I’ve been this put off by a movie while being simultaneously intrigued.
After you watch it (or maybe survive it is a better description) does MEN seem like a heavy-handed allegory for toxic masculinity or a spiritual vision of grief, survivors’ guilt and the heavy weight of it that you never quite handoff?
I could argue both. Right after I saw this, I was negative and found the ending so stupid it was funny, albeit repulsive.
Now, a couple weeks post viewing, I have more appreciation for sequences of the film that are Garland perfection. Harper’s voice echoing in the tunnel, her dialogue with Geoffrey, her wide-eyed discoveries during the film’s 17 minute long, dialogue free sequence bathed in Salisbury and Barrow’s score.
At first glance, I didn’t like MEN.
In retrospect, I think that’s the point.
I’d rather be intelligently disturbed than predictably bored, so I’ll give Garland’s MEN a C+.
If you’re looking for a good time, this is not the film for you. If gore or bloody horror put you off, keep walking.
I’m still baffled by this unhinged mess.
But for some reason, I think I’ll need to watch this again….