“A young woman goes on a solo vacation to the English countryside following the death of her ex-husband.”

Director: Alex Garland
Writer: Alex Garland
Staring: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear
Rated: R
Release Date: May 20, 2022

If you watched Men and did not need to look up what the hell it all meant, then did you really watch Men?

Director and writer Alex Garland likes making unique movies. He broke into Hollywood with Ex Machina in 2014, which won an academy award for Visual Effects and saw Garland himself nominated for Best Original Screenplay. He followed it up with a very challenging book adaptation in Annihilation (2018). After a brief stint in TV for FX’s Devs, Garland returns to the movie universe with Men, which is by far his most meta movie.

So what the fuck is Men.

Men is the story of Harper (Jessie Buckley) and she has decided that she is going on holiday to the countryside to get away from the city the trauma she recently experienced. The reason for her need of escape is illuminated throughout the story, but for the TLDR readers; her partner James (Paapa Essiedu) recently died, and she saw it happen. The two had just had a big fight, and in the heat of the moment he had hit her. Ashamed of what he had done, James went to the roof, and the next time Harper sees him, he is falling to the ground and she has a full view of it from their flat window.

Beguiled by a flux of different emotions, Harper needs this escape to try and re-center herself. This proofs to be a very difficult task. Harper meets the owner of the cottage, and he is an oddly talkative chap. With a bit of creepiness sprinkled in, Harper takes a walk into a neon green forest and comes out with a haunting “echo” monster following her. I say echo monster metaphorically because this evil entity is a naked, lost, lonely man. He follows her back to the cottage and Harper rightfully calls the local police. They come to take this mysterious man away, but the male cop seems a bit familiar. Things are getting strange.

With the thought that her stalker is away behind bars, Harper ventures outside of the house. She finds herself at a church and meets an actual new face in Samuel, but this childish man is petulant and rude. Harper is thought to be saved by a priest, but this religious man begins seeding endless guilt into Harper’s mind rather than comfort and acceptance. The priest is blaming her for James’s death, and she is taken aback by his rudeness. In an effort to try and forget the trauma she has been experiencing, Harper heads to the local brewery. There she meets with the cottage owner, the cop, and another over-interested patron.

Here is where I should say that Rory Kinnear plays every man in this outlier community except Samuel. Kinnear plays the cottage owner. He plays the cop. He plays the priest. He plays the creepy man. He plays whatever form of evil a man can be. The reason I called Harper’s original terror in the woods an echo monster is two-fold. There is a great auditory trick that fuels the audience with dread, but there is also a symbolic component to it. Men is about the multiplicity of the man’s evil, and there are multiples ways that man’s awfulness sends ripple effects on society, and women in this case.

Much like in the tunnel when Harper first screams into it, the evil of the men in this odd magic landscape gets louder, and louder, and louder. It is disconcerting, to say the least. Men are creepy and assuming of women. Men prey on women. Men don’t believe women. Men shower guilt on women. Men terrorize women. All of this is shown literally with one man playing so many different types of evil. Rory Kinnear has the dubious role of being creepy and evil in crazy sorts of ways.

Remember when I said that Alex Garland got really meta? You believe me now?

The ending of Men is Harper facing off against the entity of man. Garland takes what first looks like a rather literal creepy tale of over-interest and spins it into a supernatural and spiritual folk tale. Men has an eerie sense of a fairy tale that nobody wants to hear ever again. Come the end of it you are exhausted and you just have to take a seat to process it all. Harper literally does this, emulating the processing needing to be done to understand the traumatic themes that were unfurled.

The colors of Men are punch-you-in-the-face vibrant. There is a hint of red in every single indoor house shot of Harper. She is not safe even when in a locked home. The green of the forest is vivid, to say the least. The colors are almost neon when Harper is walking through them. The environmental shots reminded me a lot of Annihilation. It was like I was watching the same movie for a smidge, just without the science fiction tech.

Men is Garland’s first attempt at something not science fiction. He delves a bit into folklore and supernatural religious terror, and this is where the story takes a bit of a tumble. When Harper visits the church she sees various deities in statue form shining through the dampness of the stone. The first god is The Green Man, who (according to IMDB), is a very old male nature deity or forest spirit, found on both secular and religious buildings all around the world. He is often depicted with a face made from foliage, and although his origins remains unclear, he usually symbolizes rebirth, specifically the seasonal cycle of growth and decay. Secondly there is Julia of the Breasts, which is a sculpture in Ireland that is usually depicting a naked female with exposed breasts and vulva. Theories about her age and function vary: most sculptures date to the 11th century, but some claim that it is of Celtic origin, existing even before Christianity as a symbol for fertility or childbirth, or the representation of a pagan mother goddess. In later times, the symbol may have been used as a religious warning against sinful lust or to ward off evil spirits. Modern views regard the Sheela na gig as a symbol of feminist empowerment (widely used during the 2018 Irish abortion referendum) and body positivity.

So yea, it is a lot.

Knowing this information is great. Looking it up after the fact for clarification…yea, not the best. This is my biggest struggle with Men. The movie is like a 27 layer dip, but you as the viewer only have a chip that can skirt the first seven layers. I swear that when I was watching Men the first time around, I thought that I understood it. However once I started looking up things about the movie, I realize I didn’t pick up on half the things I should have. I had no idea about this The Green Man or or the Julia of the Breasts in Ireland. Had no idea. But again it all does make a ton of sense, specially the importance of rebirth, fertility, and cycles. Garland dove DEEP into his back of knowledge, and there is no denying that he has a fantastic grip on what this story is with this idea. But Garland is too deep down the rabbit hole and he doesn’t offer you the rope to climb down there with him. He makes you fetch it yourself. Perhaps that is what he wanted. To stoke research and thinking about this entity.

The Green Man reminded of David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021). It is a story set in nature for the majority of it, and the final climax between Gawain and The Green Knight has the same sense of dread that Men induces. Perhaps there is not as much terror, but The Green Knight has multiple different endings that can be interpreted, but each one could be the beginning or end of a lifespan that is due to repeat itself in history. Men takes a more grounded approach without the idea of royalty and destiny.

While this story may not have been the best thing Garland has put forth in his young career, Men is still top notch visually. There are striking visual one-offs that stick with you, but the real memorable parts come in the films conclusion. It is shock value. Rory Kinnear literally transforms into different versions of men and it allows for a symbolic ending that puts Harper in an emotional dishwasher. The solo vacation of this mourning young women is not a happy time. Come the end of it, it is just exhaustion. Just look at the literal last lines of the movie.

Harper: James… what is it that you want from me?

James: Your love.

Harper: [sighs] Yeah.

That sigh is all of us at the end of this movie. Men is exhausting. Harper at the end of the movie has just survived an ordeal like no other, much like how heartbreak is different for everyone. We have not seen any of Harper’s healing process yet. That sigh at the end is her accepting that she could not give what James wanted, and that is both distressing and relieving to have some of the answers you need, even if they are hard to take.

Men is an absolutely fucked up movie. It is something you have never seen before. I know for sure I have not. The performances from Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear are kinetic (couldn’t help with the alliteration), and the visuals Garland brings are eye-popping. The story may buck you and throw you off the saddle for a bit, but if you are willing to get back on the ride and buckle in tight, Men rewards you for trying to understand it.

Men is streaming on Showtime.

STANKO RATING: C+ (3.0/5 Stars)

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