“Visionary” is liberally used to describe directors these days, but if any filmmaker has earned the title, it’s writer/director Alex Garland, whose work has pushed forward some of the major trends in horror and sci-fi filmmaking over the past two decades. He penned the screenplays for “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine,” and directed the the coolly intelligent “Ex Machina,” as well as the feverishly hallucinatory “Annihilation.” Garland uses genre to explore the nature of human existence, and the ways in which human beings struggle to connect across planes of being, both organic and mechanic. In his latest film, “Men,” Garland turns toward the domestic, finding the horror within the confines of the home, and ripping it out from within.
With “Men,” Garland remains rooted in the natural world, but in this folk horror riff, the events that unfold are so entirely unnatural that some images and concepts are impossible to unsee or forget. Garland challenges the natural order in order to examine the many monstrous forms that emotional abuse and trauma can take on a human being’s psyche, and he does so in a Grand Guignol of grotesquerie. Yet after all that blood and gore, too much remains mysterious about “Men,” as Garland poses big questions that remain unanswered.
Men,” which calls to mind Robin Hardy’s 1973 “The Wicker Man,” Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and any manner of garden-variety home invasion slasher films, is deep with reference and also unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Jessie Buckley stars as Harper, a woman devastated after witnessing the suicide of her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu). Seeking some space and quiet to rest and heal in nature, Harper rents a sprawling country home in a tiny, verdant village (the film was shot on location in Gloucestershire, England).
The proprietor of the estate is a quirky fellow named Geoffrey (an incredible Rory Kinnear), a bit of an odd duck who comes with the property. Harper brushes off his awkward humor, but then things start to happen, scary things. Her veil of safety is punctured after an unsettling experience with a vagrant man during a ramble in the woods. As she reaches out for help, from the police, at the pub, even with the local vicar, she starts to realize that every man in this village looks like Geoffrey, and not a single one can be trusted. Her faith in men, already shaken by James, evaporates completely. The vibrant natural setting seems less like a soft, welcoming blanket, and more like encroaching prison walls, masking the terrors it might contain.
With a brilliant use of space, sound and editing, Garland maintains an almost unbearable sense of tension throughout “Men,” until he unleashes a carnival of body horror seemingly intended to serve his metaphor. It’s just that it’s never clear what exactly Garland is trying to say with all this twisted flesh, with all these men, about the one woman at the center of it all, a scream queen who is strangely, frustratingly passive. As her past trauma threatens to overtake her present reality, is Harper making peace with her past or vanquishing it?
Garland poses provocative questions about the ramifications of emotional abuse and manipulation, rattling the audience with bone-chilling suspense and unholy abominations. But, he doesn’t manage to shake out any coherent answers, which is a detriment only because “Men” seems to be trying so hard to say something. However, that missed opportunity could be seen as a chance for the audience to dive into the muck themselves and potentially fish out something profound. Whether or not you find anything, the impeccable craft and mesmerizing performances of “Men” make it a worthwhile journey nevertheless.
3 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: R (for disturbing and violent content, graphic nudity, grisly images and language)
Running time: 1:40
How to watch: In theaters Friday
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