REVIEW: ‘Men’ is a Visceral Experience

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Men - But Why Tho

I went into Men without knowing anything about it. Outside the insidiously creepy poster and the one-word title, I had no idea what to expect, which is how every Alex Garland film should be entered. Unlike his past two films, Ex Machina and Annihilation, Men isn’t extremely cerebral. Still, it does use genre trappings to tell a story that expands and evolves into a weird, shocking, and unnerving take on masculinity and gendered violence.

Directed and written by Garland, Men has a small and intimate cast of Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu, and Gayle Rankin. In it, Harper (Jessie Buckley) is trying to heal from her past, more particularly her marriage, which ended traumatically. To do so, she’s rented out a country cottage lifted from a fairytale. In an idyllic hamlet, Harper uses her solo vacation to recenter herself and, more importantly, process her new life without her ex-husband. She is met by the quirky and slightly misogynistic landlord (Rory Kinnear). After a walk in the woods, Harper is followed back to her cottage, and life unravels quickly.

At this point, I’ll make the obligatory note for you to not read any further if you want to go into Men completely blank -and I recommend you do so if you can. Bookmark this review and come back to it. But if you’ve seen the trailer, then you know that Kinnear’s role as the landlord is only the tip of his character work in the film. In Men, Kinnear plays an entire village of men, all with their own eccentricities and misogyny, some overt and others covered under the veil of a helper.

Men contains multitudes in that audience members will surely react to the film’s dialogue and tension differently. In fact, Garland packs the film with moments that will make men and women uncomfortable in different ways, especially with the film’s final act. That said, as a female critic in the audience, as a survivor of intimate violence, Garland’s choice to look at gendered violence succeeds because of how explicit his commentary is.

Kinnear plays all the men in the film, with the exception of Harper’s ex-husband (Paapa Essiedu). In doing so, I’m reminded of the times I’ve entered male spaces aware, particularly when they’re all white, and how every face becomes the same. In some situations, this is a survival technique; all men are the same in this instance and can all potentially bring me harm. I have to be aware of my surroundings, the people, and the faces just begin to blend. While I become hyperaware of the men, I don’t distinguish them from one another (particularly in white spaces). It’s normal, making Harper’s lack of awareness of these all essentially being the same man seem real.

There is a twist of the fantastical that imbues the story with humor until it crashes it into horror as Harper’s safety becomes more uncertain. Ultimately, Men is a film that is hard to review just out of the fear of revealing its twists and turns. However, it is a film with a clear vision of how to make you feel. For most of the film, after the first act, every scene burrowed a pit into my stomach. Once you realize that every frame can have elements tucked away in the background, nothing feels safe.

Stressed, anxious, and extremely uncomfortable are the best ways to explain the gambit of emotions I felt over Men’s runtime. Once the film shows its teeth, it’s hard to feel lulled into thinking anything will be okay. Soon, every piece of scenery or moment of calm devolves into fear. Garland smartly uses camera angles, light, and landscape to pull the viewer in before pulling the rug from under them. Kindness morphs into gaslighting. Security lights become the perfect way to hide, and all of it makes for a visceral uncomfortable feeling that made me shift in my seat.

Men - But Why Tho (1)

That said, the subtlety with which Garland builds tension and anxiety in the film shifts when he moves to gore and explicit threat in the third act. Which, to be honest, is filled with elements that mark Garland’s directorial style, which is to constantly buck expectations. Men is equal parts folk and home invasion horror, and Garland understands everything about how to show the genre. However, he also introduces notes of the fantastical that bring chaos before the calm.

Men is a horror movie about trauma and grief and the specific type of abuse and manipulation enacted by men and how it becomes a larger pattern of gendered violence. It’s overt in its approach to telling this story; however, because of its visuals and its shock, the story isn’t going to be the same for everyone who watches it. For me, there is almost a nihilism that comes with the final girl’s resilience, a silent acceptance that this is how it is. This is what I have to go through. This is how I exist. And that quiet understanding of gendered trauma that makes the film work.

Sure, elements get muddled, and some parts left implicit should have been exposed, but Men is gripping, thrilling, and terrifying in a way that gets inside your skin nonetheless. Men is the most stressed I’ve been in a theater in a very long time, and it delivers in spades. If you’re looking for another Alex Garland film to unequivocally mess with you, this is it.

Men is playing nationwide on May 20, 2022.


Men
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    Rating - 9/10
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TL;DR

Sure, elements get muddled, and some parts left implicit should have been exposed, but Men is gripping, thrilling, and terrifying in a way that gets inside your skin nonetheless. Men is the most stressed I’ve been in a theater in a very long time, and it delivers in spades. If you’re looking for another Alex Garland film to unequivocally mess with you, this is it.