Film review: let’s generalize about “men”
Few artists working today have a better understanding of how to explore the subconscious than Alex Garland. The writer/director of ‘Annihilation’ and ‘Ex Machina’ — two of the best genre films of the past 10 years — knows how to tell a story, but more importantly, he understands the value of digging up and pointing to the things that cannot be named. His films are primary and elementary. You may not be able to parse his stories piece by piece with the brain, but if you let your instincts control, everything falls into place.
The trailer for “Men,” his latest (and the latest “high horror” piece to emerge from arthouse darling A24), promises more of the same. A woman (Jessie Buckley) screams in a tunnel, pulls an apple from a tree, and sees a boy in a mask – things that shouldn’t make the skin crawl, but it is creepy. These creeping images trigger a knee-jerk reaction, a fierce tug on your fight-or-flight response.
It’s a great trailer. And all these images are also excellent in the film. But “Men” has little to add to the experience of viewing its promotional material. Garland’s movies are usually very focused but unfathomably deep, like stepping into a puddle that’s sort of hundreds of feet deep. Yet despite the best efforts of its stars, watching “Men” is more like taking a walk by the ocean only to find it’s just one big piece of painted scenery.
About “Men”: Yes, all
Buckley’s Harper needs a place to breathe. Still reeling from the death of her husband James (a reality both less tearful and more heartbreaking than you might imagine), she arrives at a stately home she has rented in the English countryside and is captivated by her beauty and tranquility. Passing an apple tree, she takes a bite of it, savoring the experience. But don’t worry if you somehow miss the symbolism – the obsequious but condescending owner of the property (one of many roles played by Rory Kinnear) will soon be scolding her for eating “forbidden fruit “.
It’s the highlight of Harper’s campaign stay, and while I’d love to tell you that things get more subtle as they get more terrifying, that would be a lie. “Men” somehow becomes more confusing and heavier at the same time, losing its grounding as it lays the themes down thick.
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For Harper, the past (witnessed in flashbacks made immediate and terrifying thanks to the stellar performances of Buckley and standout Paapa Essiedu’s “I May Destroy You”) and present are inextricable. The more she seeks peace, the more elusive she becomes. With each of Harper’s memories of the nightmarish circumstances of her husband’s death, the current dangers she faces seem to grow and multiply.
And the dangers are, in this case, men. Yes, all the men, all of whom (except James d’Essiedu) are played by the Kinnear game. They are, literally, All The same. Imagine a woman in a terrible situation. Imagine the most obviously damaging response a man could have to this situation. Make sure you get all the complexities of gender identity out of the way. Congratulations, you’re well on your way to writing the screenplay for “Men.”
At every turn, Garland addresses the failures of a patriarchal society and the dangers of toxic masculinity with all the subtlety of a guy who expects thanks for wearing a T-shirt that says “FEMINIST” – a reality rendered from all the more frustrating by the fact that “Annihilation” and “Ex Machina” are great films that are also undeniably feminist and infinitely more thoughtful and complex than this latest effort.
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See “Men” for: Jessie Buckley, notorious non-man
Jesse Buckley. Photo: Kevin Baker.
That’s not to say “Men” is entirely devoid of subtlety. Essiedu brings both nuance and intensity to his scenes, painting a vivid picture of a relationship marred by emotional abuse and manipulation. (At one point James tells Harper to stop pleading because he’s the one pleading, like he’s called dibs on all the misery and she’s trying to steal what’s rightfully his .) Supporting player Gayle Rankin spends almost the entire duration of the film stuck on Facetime but nonetheless brings welcome humor and humanity to the proceedings as Riley, Harper’s best friend. And while the material with which Kinnear is saddled has all the delicacy of a rubber mallet, its performance is still an impressive display of prowess; one that the actor clearly likes to give away.
Still, that’s Buckley’s show. For all its considerable beauty (and it’s beautiful, thanks to Garland’s keen eye and the talents of cinematographer Rob Hardy and production designer Mark Digby), when “Men” works, it’s thanks to the immediacy of Buckley’s performance. The recent Oscar nominee is, as always, fearless, throwing herself into Harper’s life and the surreal world she finds herself in without affectation or vanity. This moment with the apple? It should be terrible. Yet Buckley fills him with grief, anger, and a thirst for a life that is his.
WATCH FOR FREE ON TUBI: Jessie Buckley in “Beast”
While Garland fails to rise to the level of his star, he at least matches her in his willingness to simply go for it. “Men” fails as an exploration of societal ills in a way that frankly should embarrass the guy who gave Tessa Thompson that scene in “Annihilation,” but when it comes to visceral thrills, it has always the juice. Garland uses elements of folk horror to make the day as unsettling as what happens in the dark, and its tendency to create scares that rely less on sudden leaps and more on sustained discomfort serves it very well. (There’s a thing with an arm now living rent-free in my brain.) This approach is particularly effective as the film reaches its confusing, gruesome, and, yes, overly simplistic climax.
Jesse Buckley. Courtesy of A24.
Of course, “simple” is not in itself a condemnation. Some important big ideas are also very simple: the notion that people should have control over their own bodies, that they don’t just exist as sex objects or emotional caregivers, etc. But if you’re not ready to engage with the intricacies that lie behind the door you decide to open in your quest to make your point, you’re more likely to end up with a bumper sticker. shocks than a story. “Men” makes for a great trailer. Give him a watch. You will get almost everything the movie has to offer.
Rated R. 100 minutes. Dir: Alex Garland. With: Jessie Buckley, Rory KinnerPaapa Essiedu, Gaelle Rankin.
DIY Double feature: “Men” and “I Spit on Your Grave”
Camille Keaton in “I Spit on Your Grave”, now streaming for free on Tubi.
I spit on your grave (1978): In the years since it was banned in countries like the UK (it’s been called a “wicked video”), “I Spit on Your Grave” has been elevated to cult status while also leading to sequels and sequels. remakes (including Steven R. Monroe’s 2010 version). Many words have been devoted to this film, including critic Roger Ebert the famous caller “an ignoble waste.” Rated R. 101 minutes. Real: Meir Zarchi. With: Camille Keton, Eron Tabor, Richard Pace, Anthony Nichols, Gunter Kleeman.
Read critic Emma Fraser’s take on ‘I Spit On Your Grave’.
About the writer: Allison Shoemaker is a Chicago-based pop culture critic and journalist. She is the author of “How TV can make you smarterand a member of the Television Critics Association and the Chicago Film Critics Association. She is also a producer and co-host of the podcast network Podlander Presents. Find her on Twitter and instagram at @allisonshoe. Allison is a Tomatometer-approved top reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes.
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