Review: Gender-Centric Horror Flick Men Struggles to Find Depth Beyond Trauma

A film like Men, the latest from writer/director Alex Garland (Annihilation, Ex Machina), is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I’m not even entirely sure it’s my cup of tea, but hopefully by the end of these several hundred words we’ll have worked that out together. At once quite constrained and then again entirely over the top, Men is the story of a woman who rents a large, old country home on her own with the hopes of privately grieving her recently deceased husband. Over the course of the film’s 100 minutes, Harper (Jessie Buckley) only becomes more traumatized by a series of odd men, all played by Rory Kinnear, who lurk, stalk, probe and otherwise violate her space until the film’s graphic and heavy-handed conclusion.

The most appealing part of the film, and what might make enduring its half-baked themes and reductive approach to gender and power dynamics worth it, is its small but mighty cast. Buckley creates a woman rebounding from her husband’s emotional manipulation, wracked with guilt and grief but nevertheless refusing to be gaslit or underestimated yet again. Her ferocity and confidence grow in the face of relentless threats against her safety and mental wellbeing, and it becomes something of an anchor for our attention as those threats become more and more outlandish. And in Rory Kinnear, Garland has tapped one of the most talented and versatile actors working today for a role that requires each of those in spades. Kinnear creates every man in the small village, from the hapless host who welcomes Harper to the estate to the blue-collar barkeep at the pub to the creature nakedly stalking her first from afar and then from very, very near. He channels something sinister in each of them, creating an undercurrent of dread in even the film’s quietest moments.

What passes for a plot in Men seems only to be in place to give Harper and the various men who torment her a reason to cross paths—and Garland a reason to explore themes including everything from original sin and motherhood to mental health and its role in gender dynamics. It’s all a bit much, and it never quite feels like Garland fully unearths anything intriguing in any of it. There are parallels drawn between Harper’s traumatic experience with the death of her husband and the version of the man who eventually attacks her, some much more graphic than others, none of them nuanced or finessed to provoke contemplation. And certain scenes hint at something more complicated going on under the surface, including a tense, mysterious moment in an abandoned train tunnel and a cringe-inducing confrontation with a misogynistic vicar, but the moments are fleeting as Garland quickly gets back to being very very clear about just what he’s trying to say here.

That’s not to say that every film needs to be an intricately woven tapestry of subtle themes and deep observations to be successful; sometimes a horror movie is just a horror movie. But Garland has already proven, and quite well, that he is more than capable of creating something as visceral and intense as it is meaningful and thought provoking. In the end, Men never quite figures out the latter half of that equation, instead reducing its two leads to caricatures of the genders mired down by fairly narrow-minded interpretations of both. Sure, come for the shock factor in the film’s disturbing final act. Just don’t expect to stay for anything particularly interesting to discover behind all of it.

Men opens in select theaters Friday, May 20.

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Lisa Trifone