Men

If director Alex Garland had any sense of humor at all, he would have titled the movie “Fear and Loathing in Cotson”.  As it is, Men is about how badly men behave, particularly when they are rejected by women.  Jesse Buckley plays Harper, a woman suffering in a marriage with the violent and emotional James (Paapa Essiedu).  When she says she wants a divorce, he threatens her with committing suicide.  He figures she would prefer to stay married over having to deal with the guilt of his death, but Harper is determined.  James dies suddenly, and it’s unclear whether it was intentional or an accident.  Some time afterwards, Harper decides to take a vacation.  She rents a house in the English countryside.  Once there, Harper meets proprietor Geoffrey, an overly polite English type.  On a walk, she’s stalked by a naked man.  Shortly afterwards, she is confronted by an angry child, an oily vicar, a dismissive policeman and assorted male dullards, all played by Rory Kinnear.   (“The Many Faces of Rory Kinnear” would also have been a better title.)

Each Kinnear starts out by being nice to Harper, only to reveal their true ugliness when she rejects their advances.  Yes, (some) men act like assholes when the object of their affection rebuffs them.  Unfortunately, that is all that Men has to offer thematically.  Garland has met the enemy, and it is men.  In his righteous hands, feminism is blunt instrument and the audience a set of nails to be pounded.  Problem is, the audience for this movie is likely full of converts.  Allegorical horror movies like these are easy to admire for their audacity and conviction.  I admire Garland’s guts with seeing his vision through.  Unfortunately, the movie is such an obvious and didactic affair that it becomes ridiculous very early on.  It’s a well crafted and well acted movie, but it lacks any subtlety and nuance.  The more serious it becomes, the more laughs it induces.  I smell a cult movie.   Not recommended.

Men opens with a scene of Harper (Jessie Buckley) alone in her apartment.  When it begins to rain, she closes the patio door.  Moments later, she sees a man falling from above with a terrified look on her face.  Harper locks eyes with the man before he falls out of view.  This scene actually is a flashback, and the falling man was Harper’s husband James (Paapa Essiedu).  How both of them ended up in their respective positions will be revealed in subsequent flashbacks.

In the present, Harper drives to the village of Cotson for a holiday.  (How much time has elapsed between her husband’s demise is not divulged.)  After arriving at the grounds where she will be staying, she plucks an apple off a tree and eats it.  A man inside the house nearby sees her from behind a window frowns.  Damn Eve and her damned apples!  He heads outside to meet her.

The man is named Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), the owner of the house Harper is renting.  He’s polite and friendly, albeit more practiced than genuine.  He shows Harper around the house and she’s delighted by it all.  When Geoffrey asks her when her husband is coming, she says that she’s not married and didn’t bother to change her reservation.  Geoffrey acts disturbed by this revelation, and dejectedly leaves her to it.  (I never got why Geoffrey was upset by this news.  Shouldn’t he be happy to find out that Harper is actually single?)

After settling in, Harper goes for a walk in the woods.  Elton John’s “Love Song” plays on the soundtrack, performed by a woman.  Harper is overjoyed by the landscape, filled as it is with green trees and violets underfoot.  Even a sudden rainstorm fails to dampen her spirit.  She finds a tunnel and sings into it, playfully turning the echoes into a chorus.  She then hears what sounds like a woman’s shriek and sees a figure appear at the other end.  The figure runs towards her and Harper flees.  Back at the house, Harper takes a picture of the neighboring field and is startled when she sees a naked man in the distance (also Rory Kinnear).

Back at the house, Harper confides to her friend Riley (an underutilized Gayle Rankin) about the photo.  The naked man appears in front of the house and Harper’s phone connection mysteriously drops.  She calls the police, who capture the man.  The female police officer says that the man didn’t resist arrest and that they’ll take him in for questioning.  The officer says that the man stinks, and isn’t thrilled with having to ride into town with him.  At this point, any rational person would have left.  The only reason why Harper stays is because the movie insists she act like a typically oblivious horror movie heroine.

Harper visits the church nearby and weeps over the death of her husband.  In previous flashbacks, James is shown to be a paranoid and violent creep.  He grabs her phone while she’s texting, and is shocked to read a message stating that he scares her.  To prove Harper’s point, he punches her in the face.  He apologizes for his behavior, but Harper pushes him out of the apartment and tells him to never come back.  (Good for you, girl.)  Outside the church, Harper is approached by a young boy wearing the mask of a woman’s face.  The boy (with the face of Rory Kinnear) asks Harper to play hide-and-seek, but she declines.  A vicar (also Rory Kinnear) appears and tells the boy to leave, who calls Harper a stupid bitch.

The movie just keeps doubling down on the horror movie heroine acting stupidly trope.  I can easily see that the three men Harper has met all look the same.  Certainly Harper must be aware of the same thing.  Why does she stick around?  Because the movie needs her to ignore the obvious.

The vicar confides that he witnessed Harper crying inside the church.  She confides that she was crying over the death of husband.  Harper says that James was either trying to re-enter their apartment from the floor above or jumped, she doesn’t know which.  The vicar spouts some religious platitudes and asks Harper if she gave James the chance to apologize.  When she reacts with shock, the vicar states that men are prone to a bit of domestic violence from time to time (ho-hum).  Even worse, the vicar asks if she gave him the chance to apologize. If she had, he might still be alive.  Harper leaves and tells the vicar to fuck off.  (I so wanted to do that as well, but I didn’t want to freak out the other two moviegoers in the theater with me.)

Harper then visits the pub nearby.  A couple of football fans (Rory Kinnear times two) watch her walk in and head to the bar.  Geoffrey is also there, and he insists on paying for her drink.  A policeman (Rory Kinnear yet again) walks in and orders a beer.  (The barkeep is also, well, you know.)  When Harper asks what happened to the naked man, the policeman says he had to let him go because he hadn’t committed a crime.  When Harper says that the man was stalking her and tried to enter the house, the policeman disagrees that stalking is an actual crime.  Disgusted, Harper storms out of the pub.  (Does she leave after this?  No.)

Back home, Harper confides what happened to Riley.  She insists on coming over immediately to ensure that Harper will be able to enjoy her vacation in spite of the awful men trying to ruin it for her.  When Harper begins to give Riley the address, the phone call drops again.  (Damn that technology created by men!)  Outside, Harper sees the policeman standing near the tree.  She asks him what he’s doing there, but he doesn’t respond.  Instead, all of the apples fall from the tree.  (Eve, you’ve really done it this time!)  The motion lights cut out and when they turn back on, one of the football fans in the pub runs towards the house.

Inside the house, Harper arms herself with a knife and hides after a chair crashes through a kitchen window.  Geoffrey appears and searches the house but doesn’t see anyone.  Instead, he finds a bird with a broken wing.  He snaps its neck and then disappears.  The naked man tries to grab Harper through the mail slot, but she stabs his arm.  The child appears and chases Harper, who hides in the upstairs bathroom.  The vicar lets himself in and confesses his lust for Harper.  His feelings are all her fault, you see.  Dear girl, can’t you understand that its your fault why I’m compelled to rape you?  Harper stabs him before he’s able to inflict any damage, however.  (Is it weird that I was so happy to see a man of the cloth get stabbed?)  

Harper attempts to drive away but runs over Geoffrey.  After she leaves the car to check on him, Geoffrey commandeers the vehicle and tries to run her over.  Fortunately, he’s a terrible driver and crashes.  Back at the house, the naked man blows dandelion seeds at her.  Harper is momentarily dazed but awakens and enters the house.  Once inside, Harper is confronted with images of the men, and eventually her husband.  When Harper asks what he wants from her, he basically states that he wants her love.  The next morning, Riley appears and finds Harper sitting alone outside.  “Love Song” plays again, this time sung by Sir Elton himself.  Thankfully, the end.

I only watched the trailer (see below) before seeing this movie.  Based on it, I thought that Men was another “I’m in a foreign place being stalked by creepy weirdos” horror movie.  While Men does use that template for the narrative structure of its story, the movie is much more ambitious than that.  Men is an allegorical horror movie, in the same vein as Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us, Night of the Living Dead, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and so on.  Generally speaking, I’m fine with allegorical horror movies.  When they work, they are almost sinister in how they reveal things about ourselves, especially our worst selves.  When they don’t work, as is the case with Men, they are utterly ridiculous.

A media analyst I read criticized a review by a well-known film critic by stating that he was not managing the metaphor properly.  Without getting into either, I can see how a movie like Men presents a problem when it comes to those who want to apply critical thinking to it.  The underlying message of the movie is so blatantly obvious, I can understand how a person might think, “This movie can’t just be about that.  Certainly, it must have more meaning to it.”  Unfortunately, I figured out what Men was about very early on.  There’s no subtlety to the movie at all.  It makes no effort to cloak its intentions, instead putting those intentions front-and-center the entire time.  Men is a blunt instrument, or a “blunt excrement”, if I were to borrow from the movie Without a Clue.

The men Harper meets on vacation are all variations of men, or rather bad men.  I term them the “many faces of Rory Kinnear”.  I have to hand it to Kinnear, though.  He’s a fearless actor.  Not only does he play six (seven?) different creeps, he offers up copious amounts of full-frontal nudity as the naked man.  But I digress.

Each Kinnear wants the same thing: Harper’s unconditional love and affection.  They just use different ploys to get it.  Geoffrey is the super polite, pseudo-aristocratic type, chivalrous to a fault.  The boy is playful and confrontational.  The vicar delivers soothing platitudes and offers to heal her soul.  The policeman provides protection.  The naked man, or Natural Man as I like to think of him, emphasizes the purely biological need for man and woman to reproduce in order for humankind to survive.  None of these tactics work on Harper, though, and sees right through them.  Every time she rebuffs them, they blame her for the pain they feel and angrily lash out.  Given how men have been blaming women for their problems since Adam and Eve, this “revelation” is not as profound as Garland thinks it is.

Even though Garland reinforces the “men are shits” theme repeatedly throughout the movie, he unpacks an extremely clumsy visual metaphor at the end of the movie just to make sure that his point is understood.  As each Kinnear grows a slit, gives birth to another Kinnear and dies, my mind couldn’t help but interpret the imagery.  Men give birth to their own pain.  Men equate the pain and anguish of rejection as an experience akin to childbirth.  Men give birth to their own agony.  Women have the unenviable fate of dealing with one emotionally immature man after another.  Whatever.

Ultimately, I only wound up feeling very sympathetic towards Buckley.  I don’t know how she managed to keep a straight face through it all.  When it was finally over, I couldn’t escape the feeling that by forcing Buckley and her character to bear witness to that experience, Garland’s movie had somehow morphed to become the thing it hates.

The funny thing is, I more or less agree with what Garland is saying.  Men who have no emotional maturity and do handle rejection terribly, and do hold women responsible for their pain.  Unfortunately, Men is such a ham-fisted polemic, both the converted and the unconverted will find its preaching laughable.  For some odd reason, this movie made me think of Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs.  Just like Garland, Peckinpah was no master of nuance.  However, he understood subtext, to the point where even a completely despicable movie like Straw Dogs can be an engrossing experience.  Peckinpah was not a master of subtly, but at least he pounds multiple nails with different hammers.  Garland’s Men is just one hammer and one nail.

I take no pleasure in believing that Men is overwhelmingly and undeniably awful.  The movie is extremely well made.  Garland is an incredibly gifted director, and maintains a sense of dread throughout.  The cinematography by Rob Hardy is exquisite.  The sound design provides an amazing level of texture.  Buckley and Kinnear give all-in performances.  Unfortunately, the movie just fails at the level of execution.  All the craftsmanship in front of and behind the camera can’t make up for the simple fact that the movie is little more than a concept in search of a plot.

Maybe this movie could have been saved if Garland had a sense of humor.  Ex Machina was such an interesting movie, with a dry wit to it.  Annihilation was cool, but just didn’t stick the landing.  With Men, I can imagine Garland conceiving this movie after looking in the mirror and finding himself ashamed at being counted amongst men.  There are lots for men to be ashamed of, generally speaking.  Men needed a poet to make it work.  Instead, we got the angry man at the pub.

Regardless of how I feel about it, I can easily imagine Men obtaining cult status in the not so distant future.  Or maybe it becomes the source of a new drinking game.  Every time Buckley meets another grotesque version of Kinnear that appears, everyone takes a drink.  Be sure to keep a bucket handy when the end of the movie approaches, though.

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