Cast: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu, Gayle Rankin, Sarah Twomey. Directed by Alex Garland.
For the past twenty years, Alex Garland has set about making a name for himself in the world of genre filmmaking. After his novel The Beach was adapted into a so-so film by Danny Boyle, the two collaborated on 2002’s 28 Days Later… effectively bringing both the zombie film and British horror into the 21st century in style. Together they also made science-fiction thriller Sunshine, while Garland also wrote sci-fi drama adaptation Never Let Me Go and the comic book action film Dredd. Alongside these successes, Garland has also made the move into directing, first with Ex Machina, later Annihilation and tv limited series Devs, all of which received widespread acclaim. Now, stepping away from the sci-fi towards the folk and returning to that horror root comes Men.
Men follows Harper (Jessie Buckley) a widow trying to escape the harrowing memory of her abusive marriage by taking some time in the idyllic British countryside. Despite meeting the well-meaning but a little hapless Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) strange things begin happening, a naked vaguely green man (Rory Kinnear) starts stalking her, the police (Rory Kinnear) begin to ignore her, a young boy (Rory Kinnear) harasses her, a Priest (Rory Kinnear) is obnoxious. What in the f-word is going on?
The film’s plot is not one easily described, and it’s really nothing but a nice coat hanger on which to place ideas. Garland has never wanted for ideas, his screenplays and later directed films have always had big ones, often wrapped around moments of gallows humour or awe-inspiring wonder. Stepping away from science fiction and hiking more into the realm that Ben Wheatley would be at home is interesting.
Men is not a film to be taken literally; it’s a fairytale, or a dream, a folkloric idea onto which we discuss what we take it to mean. That could be something without much to offer, but both Buckley riding that post-Oscar nomination wave, and Kinnear the always reliable actor, both give it their all.
It’s then curious what the idea of the mythic Green Man means to the film. Is he a symbol of rebirth and of regeneration, and does this mean that all men are trapped in cycle, destined to inflict this trauma on women forever? There does seem to be an idea that despite being different people, all men suffer from being cut from the very same cloth. We all have aspects of manhood or toxic masculinity that runs through our veins, we are one and the same to the population of women.
The film is therefore strange, and not one that can always be dissected. The recurrent motif of Buckley’s echo singing absorbing itself into the score of the film haunts us, like the spectre of one horrific event in her past haunts her. Her glee becomes our terror, and her trauma becomes our entertainment.
What this does mean is that this is probably Garland’s least accessible work to date. There’s none of the straightforward thrills that 28 Days Later… or Dredd offered, none of the human emotion that drove Sunshine or Never Let Me Go. Not unlike Devs or Annihilation which had huge ideas on the very nature of everything, Men opts to be much more enigmatic than either of those and instead talk about ideas, over emotion.
This film will speak to men and women differently, to survivors of abuse and people who have never experienced abuse differently, It’s a film that is bound to cause endless debate, and Garland very clearly welcomes that. It’s to be celebrated for its purely original and unsettling nature, and a final shot that will spark debate for a while.