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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Men (2022)

Updated: Jul 7, 2022

Men has had a lot of buzz swarming around it. Your snooty film friends would shout “It’s Alex Garland!”, as they spew crumbs all over you while following it with something along the lines of: “the same guy who did Ex Machina, Annihilation, Devs and some people say he totally directed the underrated Dredd. #whynosequel?”. Oops. Let me brush those crumbs off your shirt…sorry about that. But after some hype-inducing trailers and posters, it’s not the critical smash or the film people wanted it to be à la Ex Machina and Annihilation. Instead, it’s Alex Garland’s most polarizing film, one he said would be, and it’s easy to see why as it provides no easy answers that have critics either beaming with praise or lambasting it for surface-level observations that, according to them, don’t go deep enough. As for me, I am still processing it, and with films like Men, you need to let it simmer for a while for it to fully make sense, or at least attempt to make sense of it before you can definitively proclaim your adoration or scolding hate for it. People either love it or hate it. It’s a baffling work filled with unforgettable symbolism that either means something or doesn’t at all. So, I’m going to try to make sense of Men in real-time and to be honest, trying to explain everything will just ruin the strange thrill of it all. But for safety, spoilers be warned.

(I have marked the beginning of spoilers with **SPOILERS where I will bookend a spoilerific section with SPOILERS**)

So anyways, Men is a psychological horror that follows Harper (Jessie Buckley) who is on a countryside retreat looking to heal from a personal tragedy. But while there, a very naked stranger begins to stalk her, prompting her environment to reveal its true, hostile nature.

So as expected, trauma plays a major ingredient in the dense broth that is Men. Add some grief and guilt into the mix and you have the gist of what to initially expect going into it. Sounds fairly simple right? You’re probably thinking “ag, yet another modern slow-burning horror following yet another traumatised female told by yet another male director”. But this simplicity can be deceiving. Garland doesn’t just want to make the titular monster of the film prey on Harper for shits and giggles, he also wants to discuss the very notions of men and their intrinsic need to do what they do, ultimately breaking down its intimidating, invasive, terrifying demeanour into a miserable worm of a collective villain that is highly effective in Garland's intention of taking Harper on a journey to truly healing - one that she will ultimately need to take control of. Garland isn’t excusing poor behaviour here by finding the root cause of why men are garbage to women, he’s not interested in that. But what he is interested in, is exposing the toxic, almost inherent traits all men appear to have had at some point or another that has each character instinctively gaslighting Harper at every turn.

Men really is a fitting title to this story. Garland uses them as a monster literally and figuratively throughout, sometimes to a fault. Some of these instances may be very on the nose, but others can sometimes be guilty of being so vague to the point that it can feel like they don’t really have an intended, deeper meaning in the grand scheme of things. Random ambiguity can be frustrating, especially in this day and age where audiences, even the snooty art crowd, want definitive answers to confirm their theories (but God forbid it denies them). But that’s the beauty of a film like Men, it becomes a conversation piece the moments the credits roll (especially regarding those last 15 minutes). But this doesn’t mean Men isn’t entirely random. Garland is too smart and thoughtful of a filmmaker to do that. This allows for Men to be like the Mulholland Drives, the Space Odysseys, the Mother!s, etc. in creating genuine conversation in interpreting a piece of art, regardless of whether you hate or love it. Case and point, The Green Man is a prominent figure we see throughout the film through carvings and an actual character rearing his ever-changing face. Normally a symbol of seasonal change throughout many different cultures the world over, his arrival and stalking of Harper may suggest change is on the horizon for her, but once you pair that with the ambiguous and often debated meaning of Sheela-na-gig, an ancient, mysterious image of a woman exposing an exaggerated vulva, its meaning can go every which way depending on how you read and ultimately perceive it. Sheela’s carvings are found in the local church she visits, eventually flashing before us intermittently at points that eventually leads us to the wild final 15 minutes that is without a doubt the film’s main talking point. I won’t go too far into detail about what those final 15 minutes entail exactly (it’s absolutely insane), but it’s effectively the spoon provided to us so that we may finally taste this aforementioned broth that has been brewing so patiently, eagerly awaiting our WTF reactions of disgust, frustration or possibly even absolute glee.

As mentioned before, Men is a completely fitting title and as you can imagine, the villain or collective villains of Men are, well, men. And rightfully so. A never-better Rory Kinnear has the mammoth task of playing all (except one) men found within Men (say men one more time), including a teenager who is not only guilty of being a total shithead but of major uncanny valley vibes as well that may or may not be intentional. They’re consistently unsettling and invasive, but there is a truly sinister background noise growing within Harper from each of these men, and thanks to a traumatic divorce, something she can’t quite seem to shake off.

The setting of the film is often a gorgeous fever dream with deeply saturated colours of nature that blind our eyes as she wonders about the area that eventually leads to a deep dark tunnel. Here, we have one of the film’s most thrilling aural moments as she creates a chorus of her echoing voice bouncing around the walls, bringing genuine joy and a sense of freedom to her she very clearly hasn’t had in quite some time. **POTENTIAL SPOILERS But this, unfortunately, awakens something, and before we know it, a naked figure begins following her, ending her well-earned joy abruptly as she now finds herself uncomfortable and constantly looking over her shoulder. Her singing is almost an unintentional siren call, beckoning forth this naked, primal man to follow and be fascinated by her. “He’s harmless” is the response from local police, completely dismissing all concerns Harper has shown. It’s a sort of domino effect that sets things in motion for Harper from here on out that has her environment, completely dominated by men, show their hostile nature towards her. POTENTIAL SPOILERS**This is where the villains’ key weapon comes out to play: gaslighting. I can hear some of you rolling your eyes already, but Garland instigates a fascinating exercise in showing what gaslighting is and how it effectively stokes trauma, grief and most importantly, guilt to unprecedented heights within Harper. We get glimpses of her old relationship, each one ushering us towards its demise by showcasing her ex’s behaviour as well as her own. What Garland does so slyly here, is that he has us working within the same mindset as Harper, wondering if she, who is also us, the audience, is truly to blame for what happened between them. **SPOILERS “I’ll kill myself if you leave” her husband threatens her, manipulating her into staying or guilting her for the rest of her days. SPOILERS** Gaslighting like this further magnifies that of the three main instigators within Harper’s current environment: Geoffrey (the landlord of the house she is staying in), the vicar, and the teenage boy. Each one is an archetype we have all seen before, but for Harper, in particular, shares hurtful characteristics with those in her past that most likely aren’t just limited to her ex-husband.

As mentioned before, gaslighting is a key weapon used against Harper throughout, and religion works in tandem with it. Her husband uses religion as a means to keep her in this marriage: “we made a promise to the church”. A church’s spire is easily seen from the cottage she stays in, and images of The Green man and Sheela-na-gig are found within it. A vicar offers some sort of support and comfort as she talks through her guilt and trauma of what transpired in her marriage. **POTENTIAL SPOILER But soon, that changes as he starts shifting the blame towards her, that maybe if she had given him a chance to apologize, things wouldn’t have transpired the way they did. POTENTIAL SPOILER** This safe, comforting haven of understanding and compassion that religion perceives itself to be, quickly tears off its mask and showcases what it really is, encouraging guilt to flourish even further within someone who is not at fault. It’s something that resonated with me as religion has been a key backdrop for me in my own life, guilt-tripping me behind a mask of compassion and understanding that can be deceitful.

But aside from some obvious observations of religious hypocrisy, Garland’s villains become less terrifying and actually more pathetic the closer we get to its finale. As other reviewers have stated, the villains of Men aren't as terrifying as you initially thought, but end up becoming snivelling, inadequate creatures craving for constant attention. From her ex-husband to a boy calling her a bitch for not wanting to play a game with him, all the way to the admittedly lovely and helpful landlord in Geoffrey, who jokes about her eating an apple off the tree outside as it is forbidden fruit - yet another religious motif found within Men, one that males have found a way to shift the blame on us leaving the Garden of Eden squarely on Eve, therefor all women. The final act has these key figures vying for her attention that has them both falling at her feet begging for scraps while also mocking her grief that has them gaslighting her once more.

Then, it’s in the final 15 minutes where spectacularly gross and effective body horror comes into play that has people scratching their heads over the “whys” and “what does it all mean?”s of the film. It’s impossible not to search online for the various meanings of these scenes and I am not going to pretend to fully understand every piece of symbolism that Garland throws at us in Men, but it’s certainly fun to speculate, and like Mulholland Drive, Mother and A Space Odyssey (just to name a few), films that also split audiences in terms of differing interpretations with incredibly vague endings, Men allows for audiences to do the very same. **POTENTIAL SPOILERS It’s not just a random act of vile effects and gorgeous visuals, but it feels like a literal metamorphosis of Garland’s combined ideas found throughout, effectively going down the line of each toxic male archetype Harper comes across within Men that suggests their behaviour is hereditary for men as a species. They all appear to be there just to torment Harper and it’s ultimately up to her to finally confront them. POTENTIAL SPOILERS** Garland boldly merges the imagery, ideas, meanings and varying interpretations of The Green Man and Sheela-na-gig within the film’s final surreal body horror showcase that ultimately becomes the film’s key talking point. It’s especially appropriate for the latter as scholars to this day argue over the actual meaning behind Sheela-na-gig and what her imagery actually represents. Everything from fertility to a warning against lust - themes and ideas that could easily be pertinent within the bigger picture of Men. However, it appears to be a sequence that drives the nail home for those who both applaud Garland’s intent and those who feel he doesn’t delve deeper and essentially failed the assignment of what he is trying to convey. This is certainly valid criticism, as some of these ideas can feel like images Garland obsessed over and just wrapped in a story so he could accommodate the imagery he has been dying to bring to life. But as mentioned before, Garland is a lot smarter than “it’s just because”, and allows the audience to perceive it how they want. **SPOILERS As for me, I think it works perfectly and although it’s a tad obvious in its intention, it's effective in suggesting this ever-growing cycle of fragile, toxic male behaviour that stems back to a source - one that haunts Harper most but one she must eventually overcome and ultimately learn to live with. SPOILERS**

It’s obviously worth applauding not just Rory Kinnear’s genuinely mind-blowing portrayal of multiple characters, each one with different behaviours and intentions, but plaudits belong to that of Jessie Buckley in particular, who has to evolve and adapt to those around her in accordance with her Harper's traumatic past. She shows resounding terror, anger, anxiety and most importantly, strength throughout to help us believe everything she is going through in this mad world she finds herself having to stand up to. It's an effectively grounded performance that lets Kinnear run rampant while she brings the true blood and guts of the narrative together and keeps them firmly in place. She is one of the most consistent and brilliant actors working today, and Men just showcases her endless ability to interpret and execute the most challenging of material given to her.

Men isn’t for everyone, but polarity is also a sign of good, or at the very least, challenging art. Regardless of what you may think of Men and the execution of its ideas and themes found within, it’s sure to spark fierce debate with audiences, the film community and even yourself. To this day I am still trying to understand and unpack a lot of what I experienced and what any of it could mean through its decadent array of metaphors and symbolism that may or may not be entirely random. But like the Mulholland Drives, Space Odysseys and Mother!s of the world, I welcome films that do this - testing our ability to interpret and relate to art through discussion and introspection that can be a complete reward in itself.

Where you can watch it: In theatres (Worldwide).

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