Men (2022) Review

Jessie Buckley takes on Rory Kinnear’s League Of Gentlemen in Alex Garland’s Men

Before I can even begin to tackle Alex Garland’s pastoral horror of liminal spaces and misguided mansplaining of misogyny, I first have to acknowledge the grotesque experience I had on entering the small auditorium in which I was to watch the film. It was one of the smaller screens of my local Cineworld – and not even remotely full – with stairs at the far side to access the rows of seats. Sitting at the head of this flight of stairs was an already seated cinema patron, partially shrouded in shadow who had decided, for his own comfort, to remove both socks and shoes and enjoy the film barefooted. Now that may have piqued the curiosity and possibly even attention of a certain Hollywood director. For me, it just kicked off the evening’s viewing on a very disconcerting and naggingly unhygienic note (would you ever go barefoot in a cinema?) Men, huh?

Seeking to heal from the pain of her husband’s suicide, Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) decides to spend a holiday alone in the small village of Cotson in a cottage rented from local landowner Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear). Beguiled at first by the peaceful, bucolic environment, things take a sinister turn when Harper goes for a walk only to encounter – and be followed by – a mysterious figure. Further encounters amplify the eeriness until things come to a head when her stalker breaks into the house and reveals his true nature.

Alex Garland himself has been somewhat reluctant to elaborate on the meaning of MEN, preferring apparently to let it sit and wallow in its ambiguity and thematic smugness. It doesn’t help that this lends credence to the suspicion that it might not mean anything beyond being creepy and disturbing and extraordinarily heavy-handed in its twisted refutation of Shakespeare’s musings in Hamlet:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!

how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how

express and admirable! in action how like an angel!

in apprehension how like a god

Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2

Men, as represented in a magnificently multi-faceted performance by Rory Kinnear (only let down by the appalling CGI boy face) are indeed a piece of work. But there’s no nobility in their reason – in fact reason itself is largely and conspicuously absent. The only infinite thing seems to be their capacity and desire to control and dominate women whichever form they take. In form and moving, express and admirable are replaced by eldritch and discomfiting while in action, these Men are more like demons than angels. Ultimately, yes, there comes the guise of a god of sorts – a god of the old world, before the rise of religion as we know it now (one of the truly wicked mechanisms by which women have been marginalised and managed throughout history) signifying that this pathological misogynistic urge has primal roots than run deep.

Or, you know, maybe not. It’s wide open to high school-level philosophical interpretations because that’s fundamentally the level at which it operates. There’s an intellectual and thematic pretension to the whole piece which increasingly dominates the events on screen culminating in a third act which, while wildly arresting and superbly realised, feels almost like it comes from a completely different movie than the events which have preceded it.

For at least two-thirds of its runtime, Garland, Buckley and Kinnear conspire to weave a beguilingly unsettling and absorbing horror, something akin to a bucolic BLACK MIRROR. The problems arise when the film abandons any intention of landing its point or providing any explanation whatsoever for the events or Harper’s seeming obliviousness to certain aspects of the strangeness unfolding around her. Instead, it doubles down on the weirdness and triples down on its unsubtle but profoundly unfocussed critique. It’s nowhere near as interesting or clever as it thinks it is and as a result, its self-satisfaction ends up frustrating the audience and blunting any impact it may have been able to make.

I’ve spent far longer mulling over the barefooted cinemagoer than I have the multi-regenerational nightmare that marks the film’s finale. Make of that what you will.