The poster for writer-director Alex Garland’s Men is one of the year’s most striking pieces of movie marketing — a close-up of a sinister and sneering Rory Kinnear with the title emblazoned over his eyes in massive red font. It’s a head-turning image, certain to provoke some kind of response from those who chance across it. When the trailer (featuring Jessie Buckley facing off against a bevy of creepy men all portrayed by Kinnear) played before a screening of The Northman a few weeks back, the divided audience around me reacted to the title reveal with either knowing chuckles or exasperated groans. All of the marketing materials reinforce one very simple truth: Men … they’re pretty gross!
More specifically, as Garland’s film repeatedly points out, men often wield their misogyny under the guise of caring. A flashback during Men’s opening stretch points out as much when our female protagonist, Harper (Buckley), informs her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu), that she wants a divorce. His response is to give her an ultimatum: Either stay in this marriage or he’ll kill himself. James apparently can’t handle the idea that Harper’s life would be improved without him in it, so he needs to turn their divorce into something so ugly that it would simply be immoral for her to follow through with it. The man’s feelings, of course, are what ultimately need to be considered first.
Well, sure enough, the movie’s story begins with Harper taking a summer retreat to an old manor in the English countryside to process her grief after her husband takes a plunge off their apartment complex. The caretaker, Geoffrey (Kinnear) seems friendly enough, if a tad socially awkward, and the cottage itself is encased in picturesque rustic architecture and surrounded by miles of lush green foliage.
Garland’s previous two directorial efforts, Ex Machina and Annihilation, followed characters entering an unfamiliar setting that quickly begins to turn on them. Men is no different, and as soon as Harper takes a morning stroll to explore the backwoods, she finds herself being stalked by a disheveled naked man (also played by Kinnear) who follows her all the way back to the cottage, prompting her to call the police. One of the officers who arrives (again, also played by Kinnear) arrests the nude man and dismisses the incident as just a confused homeless man wandering around. By the end of the movie, that incident is indeed trivial compared to the parade of horrors Harper is forced to endure by similarly heinous male figures (all portrayed by Kinnear, naturally).
Men, if you haven’t guessed by now, is very much a horror film, the latest in a long lineage of horror movies from 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby to 2020’s The Invisible Man that seek to convey the existential dread of a woman living under the whims of tyrannical men. In fact, Harper is not even allowed her right to grieve properly when a seemingly benevolent priest (you guessed it… Kinnear) tells her that perhaps she was at fault for “driving” her ex-husband James to suicide. That sequence, which consists entirely of Buckley and Kinnear talking on a park bench, is perhaps the most effective of the film as its message is the least muddled. Starting as a friendly chat, the priest then appallingly puts his hand on Buckley’s leg as she’s confessing about the last time she saw James before turning her confession back around on her as an admission of guilt. On its own, it would make an effective short film about the impulse many men have to turn women’s grief into guilt.
Unfortunately, the majority of Garland’s messaging is far more muddled and less compelling. While Men may be every bit as visually breathtaking as Annihilation or Ex Machina, its story is so firmly rooted in allegory that it’s near-impossible to feel invested in Harper’s journey. From the beginning, the events of the movie are rarely rooted in any kind of physical reality, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Harper’s reactions to witnessing increasingly inexplicable horrors are frequently just mild exasperation. And the horrors themselves escalate with very little logic. One moment an Evil Kinnear will literally vanish into thin air and then, in the next scene, they will be sprouting leaves from their face. It’s hard to care about a character when nearly every element of the story around them only exists to serve The Allegory.
Ultimately, Men ends up feeling like mother! Lite. Similar to Aronofsky’s controversial (and severely underrated) 2017 film, the story here is rife with Biblical allusions, cycles of life and death, and criticisms of patriarchy. Both movies are also less concerned with establishing any sense of realism than hammering in their metaphors as bluntly as possible. Unlike mother!, however, Men feels like a series of pretentious vignettes strung together with little rhyme or reason. The movie’s final sequence features some of the most outrageous and effective body horror this side of Cronenberg, but by the time it arrives, the messaging and narrative are so muddled that it lands as nothing more than an impressive visual exercise. The same could be said about the movie itself.