It starts when she eats the apple, reaching toward temptation like a modern-day Eve, that carnal queen. Whether this act in itself actually spells the downfall of man, or merely promises mens’ ruin by working them into a froth over who to blame for that ruin, is, I guess, up for debate. A useful thing about Alex Garland’s new movie, Men, is that it’s made up its mind on the subject. There’s a lush, buxom, unembarrassed history of men believing that the failures of their own lives are the fault of women — a fate handed down from on high, for many people, by the story of our creation. Men seems to find this is a little pathetic. It thinks that the men who believe as much are pathetic. Every contour of its gross-out gore and emotional laceration, its repulsive visual tricks and humorous, winking jabs, seems to turn on this disgust, which, in turn, has a habit of reducing the men depicted in this movie down to mewling, needy bundles of projection, overcompensation, and wavering mental health.
This stuff, when it works, is the good stuff, less for the ideas at stake than because it’s all so appropriately dreary and suspenseful. One of the great feats of horror, as a genre, is its ability to remind us that some of the most commonplace fears are incredibly subjective: Even if we can all recognize them, we don’t feel them equally. But in recognizing and responding to other peoples’ fears, you’re goaded into admitting that they’re real, even legitimate. So it is, in the case of Men, when we see the movie’s heroine, Harper (Jessie Buckley), walking alone at night through an uncomfortably quiet village amid churchyard tombstones and trees that obscure the sky. Or when she’s being pursued by a man through the woods with no one else around and hardly any idea where she is. Or when interactions with men ascend into various forms of violation: the quiet kind (an unwanted hand on her knee; the corrosive skepticism of a man who doesn’t believe she’s being stalked) or its very loud opposite (a fist).
Men, stripped down to the essentials, is a movie about a woman trying to mind, and handle, her business. Harper is looking to escape her life for two weeks with a sojourn to the country. She has rented out a grand, 500-year-old country house in what is effectively the middle of nowhere — carried there, in part, by tragedy. Her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu), has died; this is the first thing we see in the movie. It takes a series of flashbacks scattered throughout the story to reveal the complexities of that death, which may have been a suicide, and of the marriage itself, which was already in serious trouble. You sense that Harper is trying, in part, to outrun a sense of guilt. It doesn’t work out that way. Her demons follow her.
Men is the kind of movie to literalize those demons, mostly in the form of a man, performed by surprisingly malleable Rory Kinnear, who plays a cruel, spooky trick on her. The mechanics of that trick are best left to the movie. Suffice it to say that you’ll start to feel like you’re seeing Kinnear’s face everywhere — because you are. On the faces of a child, a vicar, a cop; sometimes threatening, other times more timid, but with a clear sense of ulterior motives. This recognition in itself is creepy enough, even more so than the actual blood and guts of the story, the knives-out stalking and terror and crescendos of violence that give the movie an ending and beginning. There is nothing creepier or more effective in Men than a nude man’s sudden, unwelcome appearance in the English countryside, looming and staring and silent, giving all the impression of wanting to be seen, wanting to violate the woman who’s looking, in the context of a movie that inflicts this act on its audience in the same moment.
It clear that Men has points to make, and it makes them insistently, striving toward a knowingness and a sense of correctness that’s admirable but not quite as jangly and fucked up as when it goes off the rails. On the other hand, when it goes off the rails, you might start to miss when it had a more decipherable point, even if its means of getting there were a little too easy. As a movie about the subjective fears of a woman on her own, being hunted or haunted by male violence both commonplace and supernaturally eerie, the movie basically works: Your heart races, you’re skeeved out, you’re crawling out of your skin. As a movie about why those men are the way they are, which is an idea that occupies a substantial chunk of its runtime, well… And as a movie about the actual woman in question…
Too much of Men is spent going through the motions of a rote, screamy, dire piece of arthouse fare about a failed marriage (a genre that I’m going to start calling “Bad Bergman” if movies keep misbehaving). Too much is spent reiterating certain gore-ish thrills and slick political points that really don’t benefit from the added scrutiny encouraged by repetition; even the grand, ecstatic, pathetic feat of the movie’s climax fizzles rather than simmers. Not enough is time spent making Harper a person who does more than react to these forces around her. Moments of her walking through the woods alone, taking in nature, don’t really count, because the movie doesn’t make them count. It invests far more of its ingenious peculiarity into whatever nonsense the men are up to. Then it garlands her with their flaws, like an albatross around her neck. Then it pauses to take a bow. We’re meant to recognize how good the movie has been at putting its finger right on the crux of the situation — at a male writer/director who’s understood what men do to women in such plain, horrified terms.
Still, somehow, it seems as though Harper is barely there. If the movie’s men are reduced to what’s worst about them, so is Harper: Her character is largely composed of reactions to what’s worst about those men. The exceptions are, unsurprisingly, her interactions with women, specifically her hilarious sister (played by Gayle Rankin), whom we largely encounter over the phone, and a woman police officer. These scenes, more than the flashbacks and the microaggressions and arms being sawed in half, point toward an actual person, a life bigger than the rigid confines of this movie. Harper’s failure to emerge as someone bigger than what the movie has in mind for her is not Buckley’s fault. Nor is it Kinnear’s fault. For a series of performances that read like a loud, showy gimmick on paper, Kinnear manages to avoid becoming a total scene-stealer. He doesn’t hog the movie. In this movie’s case, that’s saying something.