[Movie Review] MEN

[Movie Review] MEN
Courtesy A24
What a time to be a woman. To be talking about a movie titled MEN when women’s rights for safe and legal abortions are on the precipice of being taken away is quite preposterous. The last thing most women want is another movie from a male director focusing on a woman’s perspective. However, what Alex Garland has crafted with his third feature, MEN, is so much more than that as it tackles the horrors of toxic masculinity while giving the audience pause to consider if all men really are just the same.

MEN is a woman’s worst nightmare. So often horror movies centered around women feature disturbing moments of them being viciously murdered and/or raped in some gratuitous manner. What is less seen is the normal everyday aggression from men that can sometimes lead up to these dangerous moments. In MEN, the focus is more on the everyday interaction women face with the opposite sex. The slights and disapproving looks for just existing. The belief that our bodies should be governed by men in position for reasons of control. Our protagonist Harper (Jessie Buckley) is no different than any other woman out there and the reality of her situation is one that’ll resonate with most women: the fear of just existing.

The movie opens as we the viewer look through an apartment window at Harper. Bathed in warm orange light, Harper stands there in silence, blood dripping from her nose before horror washes over her face as a man falls from the sky. And from there the visuals never cease to astound. MEN, at times, looks like a Monet painting awash in picturesque landscapes and blossoming flowers. But just out of the frame, you sense a creeping darkness looking to break through the brightly painted colors. After experiencing such a horrific tragedy, Harper soon travels to the English countryside where she’s rented an adorable cottage in hopes of healing. Everything about this feels safe, and that’s where some of the horror lies, in the normalcy and beauty of what we are seeing. Horror is never more impactful than when it takes place during the day.

Courtesy A24

But god forbid a woman goes on a solo trip for some R&R and happens to encounter a man. What unfolds for Harper is a series of unsettling encounters with men in the small town she’s staying. Whether it’s Geoffrey, the owner of the cottage, or the town vicar, each man she meets has something inappropriate or unwanted to say. Through Harper’s eyes, the audience is experiencing the treatment women receive for just existing around men. But on the flip side, Garland is showing another story, the never-ending cycle of toxic masculinity through different upbringings and generations, and the impact men’s actions have on women’s fears of being around them.

Bringing this story to life are acclaimed British actors Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear. Jessie’s performance embraces the totality of anger, sadness, and unfairly placed blame and regret that she’s forced to deal with. When we see Harper release it, there’s a real sense of catharsis to it that made me wonder if Buckley herself found something to let go of as well. As for Kinnear, he’s nothing short of extraordinary. Playing the role of at least 5 different men all with his face, Kinnear gives everything to each and every one of them. Ranging from your typical “nice guy” to a religious figure, there’s not one bad performance from him even when his performances make you want to hate him. Additionally, Kinnear dedicated himself to the role(s) by going through some gnarly practical FX that bring the movie to a whole other surprising level that’ll have people talking long after the movie has been released.

Though not your typical “horror” movie, MEN melds together a psychological thriller with body horror elements and a dash of Lovecraftian imagery to create an unconventional and unique genre film. A moment that sets the tone early in the film is when Harper is standing inside a train tunnel and notices a figure arising from the other end of the tunnel and beginning to walk toward her. And there’s a moment in Harper’s eyes where the fear is noticeable and she’s come to realize that she’s alone and vulnerable. Jessie’s performance is so convincing in showing that fear that it gave me goosebumps. And unlike the bonkers third act where all hell breaks loose in a beautiful display of unhinged body horror, this brief moment in the train tunnel really captures the horror of the film.

Courtesy A24

MEN was intentionally crafted by Garland to allow the audience to decipher their own narrative from their viewing experience. However, there’s a slew of symbolism that, if familiar to viewers, will give a deeper insight into the film. There’s a lot of imagery, such as The Green Man, to suggest rebirth and a new growth – something that I believe Harper is trying to do post-trauma. There is also a nod to the Biblical Garden of Eden, which to even get into the mechanics of that would be a whole separate essay. Unlike his other two films Ex-Machina and Annihilation, MEN feels different in its visual storytelling relying more on folk horror and less on technological and scientific advancements. Instead of a rigid execution, this is far more loosely defined allowing the audience to fill in gaps with their own interpretations.

Overall, MEN is a never-ending stream of dread and horror. For women, it’s going to be a familiar dread but one that will prove to have a cathartic release. Both Buckley and Kinnear give outstanding performances that deserve all the recognition and acclaim, with Rory doing an impressive turn playing multiple characters. My only concern is that the film may be too abstract for mainstream audiences and may not be easily digestible. But aside from that, MEN is a visual feast of nightmarish imagery that’ll for sure get people talking. Whether you love it or hate it, one thing is for sure – you’ll never look at the evolution of men the same again.

Alex Garland’s MEN arrives in theaters from A24 on May 20, 2022.

Shannon McGrew
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