★★★★★ - DAILY TELEGRAPH
- Imagine if Lars von Trier directed an episode of The League of Gentlemen -
Alex Garland’s horrific tale of male malevolence stars Rory Kinnear as every man in the village that Jessie Buckley’s grieving widow visits.
Men. Honestly, what are we like? Well, if Alex Garland’s new film has the measure of us, you may prefer not to know. Garland’s astonishing first project since his 2020 miniseries Devs is a bloodcurdling modern-day folktale, in which male manipulation of women – belittling asides, emotional blackmail, disingenuous grasps for victim status, and so on – are painted not as discrete slights, but connected gestures in an obscene, aeons-old ritual.
Its plot taps into the myth of the Green Man, whose leafy countenance lurks in the stonework of churches throughout Britain and Europe, and who Garland reimagines as a primal symbol of blokeish covetousness and malevolence: the eternal perv in the bushes, torn between the desires to pry and to pounce.
The film’s interest in male entitlement also nods at Garland’s 2014 artificial intelligence thriller Ex Machina, in which two self-absorbed tech types came unstuck after failing to realise the woman they regard as principal damsel in their own life stories is also the protagonist of her own. But Men is a looser, loopier, funnier, more nihilistic work – beginning as a familiar if polished rural stalk-’em-up, then shape-shifting into a mad and merciless Rorschach blot of pure depravity and terror, or perhaps a League of Gentlemen episode guest-directed by Lars von Trier. It’s the sort of film that rattles you in three ways at once: through the grim candour of its themes, the chill precision of its craft, and the nightmarish throb of its images.
It begins with a young woman called Harper (Jessie Buckley) travelling to the countryside after losing her husband (Paapa Essiedu), who has fallen to his death in circumstances that initially prove hard to decode. A prologue shows him dropping past the balcony of the couple’s London flat with a confused rather than terrified expression on his face, though his wife’s is smeared into a screaming Francis Bacon canvas by the rain-spattered glass.
To recover from this shock, Harper has booked a fortnight’s solo stay in a picturesque Gloucestershire farmhouse, which is owned by Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), a ruddy-cheeked mustard cords and Barbour jacket type, who playfully chides her on arrival for eating an apple from the tree in the garden outside. (“Mustn’t do that. Forbidden fruit,” he chortles.) While exploring the local woodland, she discovers an abandoned railway tunnel with unusual echoing properties: a moment of surreal beauty that collapses into panic when a silhouette appears at the far end of the passage and starts running towards her.
She flees – though later, when looking back towards the tree line at a point of safety, she spies a naked male figure who bears an uncanny resemblance to the owner of her holiday let. And not just him. All the menfolk of the village – vicar, policeman, hoodlum, barkeeper, teenage tearaway – share roughly the same facial features. And all are played by Kinnear, whose middle-English everyman quality couldn’t imaginably be put to more sinister use.
Spelling out what unites this Jungian menagerie wouldn’t just be a spoiler, but would require filling in certain details that Garland’s screenplay leaves calculatedly blank. We’re not presented with mystery to be solved, so much as pushed into a free-associative wade through the near-endless ways in which men have variously excused, poeticised, disguised, ironised and religiously justified their loathing and resentment of the opposite sex since time out of mind. (Not all men, naturally. But all men in this.) And Buckley is blisteringly good as the heroine who finds herself ensnared in the same ancient mechanisms that originally laid the fall of man at women’s feet.
Some of her scariest scenes come without a spark of supernatural charge, such as a domestic argument in which the potential for violence – and specifically, the sheer ease with which a male body can inflict it on a female one – looms like a gathering cloudburst. But others lean greedily into the grotesque, and one particular late sequence ranks among the vilest things I have seen in years. Because of this, for many viewers – most, I dare say – Men will be far, far too much. Yet for those with the stomach, it feels more like munificence than overkill: the work of a filmmaker who’s giving you everything he’s got.
- Robbie Collin, DAILY TELEGRAPH
Men is now playing at Light House Petone and Cuba!