For all that it descends late on into truly insane body horror, the first moments of discomfort in Alex Garland’s Men are most notable for just how grounded they are. As heroine Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) pulls up to a large Cotswolds holiday home after a pleasant drive through England’s rolling greenery, her serenity is broken by the simple act of the house’s male landlord telling a bad joke. It sets Harper on edge, immediately setting up an imbalance of power, however slight, that both feels painfully real and forms the bedrock for the more fantastical horror that is soon to arrive.
Harper is on holiday to heal after her abusive husband James (Paapa Essiedu) killed himself to spite her after she asked for a divorce. Yet, the village she’s chosen to stay in seems to have other plans, and it’s not long before she’s encountering a bunch of rural misogynist terrors with some sort of spiritual link to the local wilderness. In a pleasingly direct but sometimes hamfisted rebuke to the common online refrain of #NotAllMen, Garland populates the village exclusively with awful men – from the police to the local vicar – all of whom are played by Rory Kinnear.
As the aggression piles up, going from nude stalking to gore-soaked home invasion, Men reveals itself not just as social horror, but folk horror too, tapping into ancient rural folklore and deities to conjure up some grotesque evil, quite like Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth from last year. It’s actually here that Garland seems on steadiest ground, taking the mix of Big Ideas and stomach-churning physicality that so defined his sci-fi work and mostly successfully transferring it over into more fairy-tale territory. It all culminates in one of the most disgusting horror finales you could hope to see on the big screen – how this got a 15 and not an 18 is utterly beyond me – one that takes really admirably big swings, even if it does end up outstaying its welcome and tipping a little too far into abstraction.
Men is very good at keeping you on edge up until this point, chucking flashes of horrifying images and piercing sound design at you, using the tranquillity of the surroundings as a weapon. What looks like escape for Harper soon becomes deadly isolation, whilst the ancient-ness of England itself serves as a font for generational evils. Garland’s examination of male violence – physical, verbal, and emotional – against women is hardly subtle, and often not as insightful as it seems to be pitching itself as, but it is pulled off with a frantic panache.
Buckley and Kinnear are crucial to Men working as well as it does, their antagonistic double-act (or, more accurately, septuple-act) very well played by each of them. Buckley delivers yet another forceful lead performance in her young but already incredibly impressive career, while Kinnear seems to be having a whale of a time in his multiple roles, allowed to go very broad to accentuate their differences but maintaining a sinister continuity between each one. Not every Kinnear is a winner – the less said about the uncanny CGI Kinnear-face on a child’s body the better – but he’s mostly putting in sterling work here.
Garland doesn’t have much to say about gender relations in Men that hasn’t been said more cleverly elsewhere, but the mix of sexism with folktales and plenty of queasy body horror is a potent one and though the ambiguous ending feels just a little like a copout, the ride to get there is wild enough to be more than worth the trip.