As I left my screening of MEN, I overheard a woman say, “I need to look up who wrote that, ‘cause I can guarantee that it wasn’t written by a woman.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
I have a push and pull relationship with Alex Garland. Ex Machina is a modern sci-fi masterpiece, Annihilation is visually stunning but a slog to get through, and Devs is an excellent limited series that’s criminally underseen. His direction is wholly unique. Take any frame from a Garland film, and you can instantly tell it’s his. The quiet nature of his filmography is often juxtaposed with an underlying terrifying plot. Nature itself is at the forefront of his settings – a secluded manor in the wilds of Alaska, a mysterious jungle in Florida, and the silent woods of Silicon Valley. Garland continues the trend by setting MEN in an isolated cabin in the English countryside. It’s impossible to watch a Garland film and not completely admire the beauty he sees in our planet, which he sharply contrasts with the potential for vileness he sees within human nature.
MEN follows Harper Marlowe (Jesse Buckley) as she attempts to escape the memories of an abusive relationship that ended with her husband’s apparent suicide. Although obviously a Garland film in look, MEN plays out like an Ari Aster film. A terrible tragedy sends the protagonist on a retreat to escape reality for a few moments, only to be followed and haunted by acts of the past.
Garland’s career as a writer started long before his time as a director, which is why it’s odd that the writing is what fails this film. Sci-fi and horror films are prone to chunks of exposition, which is acceptable due to the need for world-building, but MEN’s exposition comes from flashbacks about the final moments of Harper’s husband’s (Paapa Essiedu) life. The quiet flow of storytelling is interrupted by brash arguments that could definitely afford to be less on the nose. The toxic nature of their relationship is stated so bluntly that it feels like Alex is tapping on our shoulder, saying “You see that? You see what happened?” It’s bizarre that a film so keen to drown itself in metaphor at the end allows no room for interpretation in the beginning.
When Harper arrives at the English cottage, she’s introduced to the landlord Geoffrey, one of the multiple characters played by Rory Kinnear. The shock from the opening sequence turns into straight tension that doesn’t let up until the credits roll. Things go south for Harper quickly, as an alleged stalking incident is laughed off by men who claim that no wrong has been done because no crime has been committed. The more people she meets, the more they seem to resemble good ol’ Geoffrey, but their hostility grows towards her. A priest even asks if she feels bad for driving her husband to suicide.
Through these interactions, in addition to the flashbacks, the crux of MEN’s meaning is revealed: abusive men will do anything they can to avoid taking responsibility for the pain they cause. In the film, both physical and emotional abuse are depicted, with the abuser’s ultimate goal being eternal torment for their victims. Again, this is spelled out clearly in a flashback sequence that takes place within the first 20 minutes of the film, which makes you wonder why the finale goes so over-the-top with attempted metaphors that leave you scratching your head in the worst way. The multiple allusions to Adam and Eve work well, but the tortuous final sequence serves no real purpose besides making the audience cringe. Garland may have something deeper about male/female power dynamics, but he ultimately falls into the trap of style over substance.
It’s also in the final act where the storytelling betrays the theme, making MEN a contradictory film. MEN spends the entirety of its hour-forty run time tormenting Harper in an attempt to say that it’s bad to torment women. Harper’s agency is completely stripped from her, making her character a passive observer of the heinous acts committed by men. Perhaps it’s Garland’s way of showing the difficulty of escaping abuse, but when the moment for Harper’s self-deliverance finally arrives, Garland decides to keep the single instance of female empowerment off-screen. It’s a frustrating choice, and the film is worse off because of it.
Although the writing and thematic elements hold back MEN from being a good film, let me be clear: MEN’s final act is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever witnessed in theaters. I was legitimately scared, so much so that I had to sleep with the lights on that night. MEN makes A24's earlier 2022 release X look like VeggieTales and Midsommar, Camp Rock. Garland shoots for Jupiter, and while he may not stick the landing, I have to give massive props to the studio for not holding him back. Deeply disturbing imagery is interrupted by harrowing moments of silence. With every scare creeping toward the next, MEN is a horror film through and through. Although Garland focuses more on shock factor than delivering a sensical ending, he does capture some truly excellent horror, which is something that’s been missing from theaters since the pandemic. In a recent interview, Garland mentioned that he was considering quitting directing to go back to writing full-time, and I cannot stress enough how disappointed I would be if that’s the case. His latest outing is directed with complete precision, even if the writing lets it down at times.
MEN is an enigma, even if its message is clear as day. The direction is stunning. The acting by both Buckley and Kinnear is award-worthy. The tone and tension are pitch-perfect. The final act is mesmerizingly scary. If you can separate the technical filmmaking from the underlying thematic issues, MEN is a work of art. Unfortunately, as a whole, it only half works. Do I recommend it? Only for those who liked Aronofsky’s Mother! Just don’t go with friends, because they’ll never let you pick the movie ever again.