It’s probably helpful to approach the movie “Men” – a visually gorgeous, heady and deeply unsettling horror film that could be said, broadly, to be about toxic masculinity – with the understanding that its title, like that of Stephen King’s “It,” is more allusive than explicit. Think of the word as a key that unlocks a door – one that some may wish they had never opened, let alone entered.
As problematic as it is provocative, the film, from writer-director Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”), begins with a woman emerging from the aftermath of a personal tragedy. Harper (Jessie Buckley) has just lost her husband (Paapa Essiedu) in a grisly fall. It’s an ambiguous “did he jump or was he metaphorically pushed” scenario that is alluded to in a dreamy, slow-motion memory early in the film (later played out with greater context, via additional flashbacks featuring loud arguments and, at one point, spousal assault).
As part of her healing process, Harper has rented a remote, 500-year-old cottage from a member of the rustic gentry in the middle of nowhere: Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), who shows her around the well-appointed retreat with a mix of overly earnest solicitousness and awkward attempts at cornball humor. Harper has barely swallowed a bite of an apple from the garden’s tree before he’s chiding her – facetiously – about “forbidden fruit.”
The reference to the biblical book of Genesis, and Eve’s purported sin, is only the first of many cultural associations with the cycle of creation, birth and death – some direct, some indirect – that Garland sprinkles throughout the densely symbolic nightmare that follows. Its contours only begin to come into focus in the first act: in a largely dialogue-free passage, as Harper strolls about this verdant Eden, encountering not just the carcasses of dead animals but a creepy naked stalker in the woods, and on her very first day there, at that.
Kinnear plays the stalker, too, along with the local vicar, a village policeman, the tavern keeper, his customer and a disturbingly aggressive 9-year-old-boy, using a variety of fake teeth, wigs, a beard, CGI and various accents. It’s an acting tour de force, as well as a powerful casting decision that taps into some primal idea of fungible masculinity that harnesses – while going well beyond – the all-men-are-pigs trope.
Soon, Harper is running for her life as every manifestation of the film’s title seems bent on tormenting her, physically or psychologically. Clearly, all is not well in this paradise, and it only gets worse. Everything culminates in a home-invasion climax that is equal parts slasher flick, David Lynch-ian hallucination and literary seminar.
The vicar at one point literally quotes from Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan,” a poem about violation and impregnation by the Greek god Zeus while in the guise of a bird. Other recurring imagery includes a stone carving of the Sheela-Na-Gig, an ancient fertility symbol featuring exaggerated female genitalia, and the Green Man, a pagan symbol of regeneration in which sprigs of plants sprout from human flesh.
But the most fruitful aspect of the film may be its themes, which unbraid and retwist the threads and conventions of the damsel-in-distress narrative even as they superficially follow them. (Of course the house has a spotty cellphone connection.) It’s difficult to know what to make of “Men,” or even whether that ambiguity is the film’s strength or its weakness.
One thing is sure: The movie will infuriate some, whether fans of traditional horror or those expecting something more straightforwardly feminist from Buckley, an Oscar nominee for “The Lost Daughter,” whom Garland has described as a fully collaborative partner – along with the shape-shifting Kinnear – in his creative process.
But its seeming transgressions are as thrilling as they are challenging. Given its provenance, there’s little reason to think of “Men” as anything other than a cultural critique of patriarchy. But it’s not an overt or easy one. It’s difficult to watch, yes. But it’s also difficult to dismiss – or to forget. I saw “Men” two weeks ago, and I still feel haunted by it.
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