Men Review: Garland’s latest features strong horrors, but unsatisfying story conclusions
Writer/director Alex Garland has become a rising force in the sci-fi space with ambitious and visionary films like Ex Machina and Annihilation, but his latest trek into full-blown horror, Men, can’t maintain its engaging aspects.
The film follows Harper (Jessie Buckley), a widow heading into a secluded village in the English countryside as she reels from her husband’s death. Upon arriving, Harper is pretty much alone in this village aside from some eccentric characters she meets, like her house owner Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), but that doesn’t mean she feels safe. After a walk through the nearby forest, Harper notices that she’s being stalked by a naked man and that all the men in the village (all played by Kinnear) behave strangely towards her. Soon, Harper begins to realize that she’s in a horrific nightmare as this mysterious entity grows closer to her and carries a dark connection to all the men within the village.
Garland gets off to a great start with Men in establishing Harper’s anguish from her dissolving relationship with her husband James (Paapa Essiedu) that eventually leads to his death. The scenes that flashback to their last dispute hit that sense of dark realism that Garland always manages to have with his films as their fights and emotions feel real and lead to some dark moments. Buckley and Essiedu’s performances keep you completely invested in these scenes and paint a gut-wrenching depiction of an abusive and toxic relationship at a gruesome end. These flashbacks excellently build Harper’s grief in a relatable and realistic way that’s eventually preyed on by this mysterious force that begins to haunt her.
Frankly, once Harper comes across this naked man that constantly follows her, Garland’s strengths in delivering eerie and engaging atmospheric horror comes out in full force. The stalking sequences evoke the perfect amount of chill-inducing paranoia with how Garland utilizes the background and fluid camera movement to create consistent tension that makes you keep your eyes peeled and glued to everything happening on-screen. The sheer visual of this naked follower is chilling and the way that Kinnear effortlessly transitions to different characters adds to the film’s eeriness and makes Harper feel cornered in later parts of the film. Things only get creepier as Harper’s reality begins to disintegrate as this mysterious force grows closer and distorts her reality.
There’s no doubt that Garland is in top form when it comes to the horrors he delivers with Men that are both psychological and physical. Harper is continually driven to madness as times by this being because of how it taunts her for what happened with James and completely strips her of power. It literally makes her unable to escape and it’s what makes the intense finale one hell of a horror ride. Not to mention, the body horror that comes in final moments of the film is stomach-turning goodness that’s visually impressive and haunting. Unfortunately, Men eventually becomes style over substance as its intriguing mystery becomes way too abstract.
Just as you feel like you’re going to learn more about this entity, it’s connection to nature, and why it’s so hellbent on terrorizing Harper, the film provides any reason to stay engaged. Answers never come in a comprehendible way or at all since the film takes an unsatisfying abstract approach with its story in the final act. There’s isn’t much we learn about the entity or why it’s exactly after Harper and the idea of Harper coming across villagers that all look like the same person is never questioned, which is a little odd. In the final act, it’s almost as if the story just completely goes out the window and while the visuals and suspenseful horror remain, you do start to feel disconnected from what’s happening. Even when the film tries to tie things back to Harper’s grief over James’ death, it doesn’t feel satisfying or earned because the lead-up to it is so aimless and tough to grasp in the moment. Essentially, the story becomes secondary to the point where you’re totally lost in Men’s madness and not in a good way.
Garland shows a lot of visionary prowess with Men’s horrors and the performances elevate the eerie and paranoia-filled atmosphere the film presents, but it completely loses viewers with its more abstract storytelling leading to confusing and unsatisfying conclusions.