Alex Garland’s third feature brings his unique style and vision to an analysis of the patriarchy
One thing is for sure, whenever Alex Garland decides to make a film, you can be sure it’s to be unlike anything else in the marketplace. After his breakout directorial feature Ex Machina (2014), Garland’s sophomore outing, Annihilation (2018) was criminally underrated and underseen. Four years on he has produced his third feature film, a surreal look at the patriarchy aptly titled: Men (2022).
Men follows Harper (Jesse Buckley) a woman whose husband (Paapa Essiedu) recently committed suicide, and who decides to retreat to a small English town in the countryside to gather her bearings. However, she soon finds herself stalked and accosted by the peculiar male members of the town (all played by Rory Kinnear).
Garland’s previous two films have dealt with a certain existentialism regarding humanity’s role in society. Ex Machina parsed the differences between artificial intelligence and human beings (if there were any), while Annihilation took on a more personal route of seeking humanity’s purpose in a deteriorating planet. Men might be the blunter of Garland’s films, at least regarding its themes, it is also his most sociological, taking a direct look at gender dynamics and the crushing weight and accosting that male society places on women. By crafting Men as a horror and home-invasion story, Garland is able to make a good symbolic case of the needless pursuit and imposition of male’s opinions and needs on a female’s private property (a reading of the home invasion as a stand-in for government’s control of women’s bodies would be an intriguing one in contemporary United States).
Garland centers his symbolism and story with a more classical biblical structure, which might appear to be too on the nose at some points. It is when Garland staves off of these literary references and focuses on simple moments of tension that Men truly shines. One sequence of Harper getting chased by a strange figure in the forest had many viewers in my auditorium rapt with tension. Likewise, the finale is wonderfully unrestrained with its gore and body horror, which is less exploitative than so exaggerated you are baffled at the disgusting originality.
Buckley is an actress that has been getting some of the most interesting projects in recent years. Ever since her breakout in Beast (2017) and Wild Rose (2018), she’s gone on to work with Charlie Kauffman in I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020), Noah Hawley in the last season of Fargo (2014-), and was nominated for an Oscar for Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter (2021). Her work in Men is a solid as ever, though I felt that Garland sometimes sacrificed the character of Harper for the sake of more imagery or stylistic tone, this ironically robbed the female protagonist from having much of a voice, especially in the third act. However, Buckley is able to navigate the more common horror tropes with skill, so that she doesn’t fall into the clichés of helpless scream queen. The real star of Men, however, is Kinnear, who after decades shunned from the spotlight in bit roles of British film and TV, gets a chance to fully shine as a whole cast of varying characters. Kinnear is so successful at transforming into each townsfolk that you sometimes pause to wonder if there is another actor, or it truly is him in every role.
In the end, Men is another bewildering unique film from Garland. He very capably brings about commentary on patriarchal structures, the obsession of controlling women’s bodies, and the childish insecurity at the root of it all with brilliant horror parallels. Kinnear has a blast with the antagonistic men of the film, and Buckley delivers another understated yet crucial performance. If you’re looking to be challenged, disgusted, and surprised Garland always has your back.