Warning: Review Contains Spoilers
I’ve been writing reviews for almost fifteen years now and I don’t have many regrets about any of my reviews. There are reviews that maybe could have deserved an extra half star here or there and a few that I maybe could have removed a half star or two from, but in broad strokes I think I’ve generally come down on the side I stand by in most of my reviews. But among the ones I might want to take back is my April 2015 review of Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina, which I gave a light three stars to and considered going down to two and a half on and never got close to ranking high among my favorites that year. I think my issue with that movie was that I got a little too focused on the robotics of it all, focused too much on its questions of how human artificial intelligence can be which I find to a somewhat tired theme, and kind of missed the forest for the trees: namely everything the movie is trying to say about very human issues like misogyny and power struggles. Eventually I’ll finally give the movie a re-watch and figure out for certain. Since then I guess you could say I “made it up” to Garland by providing strong praise for his follow-up feature Annihilation, but that movie was a book adaptation rather than something directly from Garland’s mind. By contrast his new film Men, with its similarly confined setting and themes of patriarchal oppression, feels more like his direct follow-up to Ex Machina.
Men is set largely at a house in the fictional English village of Cotson where a woman named Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) has retreated to after the death of her husband James Marlowe (Paapa Essiedu). It is revealed through a series of flashbacks that Harper has reason to have very mixed feelings about this husband’s passing as he appears to have been a rather toxic personality who became abusive in his last days and his eventual death was intertwined with a moment of particular toxicity. Harper has rented this house from a guy named Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) who tours the house with a very quietly concealed condescension but leaves her with nothing to be terribly worried about. But then she spots a naked man standing in the distance and, unnerved, returns to the house. Not long after she spots this same mysterious man standing outside her house trying to break in.
So we have this divisive movie that kind of feels like a horror movie but isn’t one, that’s set in a house out in a rural area and is in many ways a two hander with a male and female actor, and also contains some disturbing imagery and who’s success is highly dependent on how willing you are to decipher its possibly religious symbolism that feels at once obvious but also cryptic… yeah this movie kind of reminded me of Darren Aronofsky’s mother! in a number of ways. That comparison might scare some people off but personally I loved that movie so it’s not meant as a criticism. Where that movie seemed to be a sort of elaborate metaphor for the bible and the rise and fall of human civilization, this movie (if you couldn’t tell from the title) is meant to be more of a meditation on the topic of male violence against women and misogyny in general.
The film at some points hints at being a folk horror movie but I think that’s a red herring, this is at its heart a highly psychological horror film. Harper is recovering from an act of unquestionable domestic abuse and is trying to come to terms with everything that influenced that behavior. The various demonic “men” she encounters in the village are in some ways meant to be reflective of some form of the patriarchy whether it’s the raw sexual aggression of the naked man, the condescending ally who doesn’t believe her about what’s going on, the entitled and possibly red-pilled teenager, the clergyman who seems nice but ultimately advances toxic ideas, or the largely ineffective police officer. It then all culminates in an ending where these entities start to literally give birth to each other in a moment of outlandish body horror which is perhaps making a point of how this misogyny gets passed down through the ages or perhaps more directly it’s trying to show how all these toxic concepts and patterns are ultimately what “birthed” the sexist violence that existed in her husband.
That finale, I’d say is probably one of the weaker elements of the film. I think I get what he was going for and the visuals Garland employs are certainly bold and transgressive but the CGI being employed is not perfect and the imagery its working with is outlandish to the point of almost being comical rather than truly disturbing. There are some gory moments in the movie that are handled better including one really nasty moment involving a knife and a hand, but in general people coming to this looking for a normal scary horror movie are probably not going to get what they’re looking for. I’m also not sure that the choice to have Rory Kinnear play all the male characters here aside from the husband really paid off. It works alright for some of the characters but in the case of the teenage character it involved using some visual effects the movie wasn’t really able to pull off and landed somewhere in the uncanny valley. But the movie is not without some solid atmosphere and filmmaking elsewhere. The village and the house are appropriately creepy areas without really having anything overtly scary about them and the sound team along with composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow give the film an appropriately moody soundscape.
So now, seven years since writing that Ex Machina review I kind of regret I’m once again faced with an Alex Garland movie where I’m not quite sure where to land. Part of me wants to avoid my previous mistake and give this the benefit of the doubt that it would grow on me, but I feel like I have more grounded comparisons to make this time around and frankly I do think this is actually a lesser movie than Ex Machina even if it’s more bold in its own way. In some ways I feel like it’s more productive to go back to my mother! comparison. This is more focused than that movie and less obtuse in its symbolism and purpose, but also certainly less ambitious and cinematically it doesn’t stick the landing as well. I guess ultimately I’m going to have to fall back on my overall philosophy that, to a point, I’d rather see something try something bold and stumble a little than coast on easy mode. This is definitely better than your average horror movie and I’m more happy I saw it than a lot of other movies even if there are aspects to it that feel a little “extra.”
***1/2 out of Five