In England, no one can hear you scream.
That seems to be the premise of Alex Garland’s Men, whose grief-stricken protagonist (Jessie Buckley) lets out wild, shaky bellows in all sorts of places: the bathtub, a church, the claustrophobic hallways of a country. Each time, his roars are inaudible to those around him, even if they risk breaking a glass of wine wandering in the cinema.
Buckley is Harper Marlowe, a recent widow whose husband James (Paapa Essiedu), in a fit of rage, stumbled – or jumped – off the balcony of a skyscraper, a tragedy rendered in syrupy slow motion in the foreground of Men . Harper can only watch in abject horror as James falls before her, lit by an impressionistic sunset glow – a sight that comes back to haunt us again and again.
In the aftermath, Harper retreats to an off-the-grid estate for the weekend, ostensibly hoping to wash away her grief with an ointment as old as time: fresh country air and nature, hours away from everything. sign of life – or so she thinks.
As soon as we arrive, disturbing images shoot from the walls of the mansion, painted blood red (a too obvious sign, perhaps, of what is to come). It begins with the appearance of its mealy-mouthed owner, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), whose goofy ways and slightly off-kilter jokes might hide menacing intentions.
Then, on a video call with her friend Riley (Glow’s Gayle Rankin, who’s underused here), Harper’s phone screen freezes in the blink of an eye and you’ll miss the jump scare, se warping into a Lovecraftian quagmire of flesh. and blood – a pair of ghoulish, misshapen lips locked in an eternal scream.
This issue teases a connection to previous Garland films – thoughtful sci-fi parables that deal with the dystopian implications of technological progress. In British Oscar-nominated director Ex Machina (2014), a wealthy, macho guy from Silicon Valley develops the perfect fembot prototype.
Its follow-up, an atmospheric adaptation of the acclaimed sci-fi saga Annihilation (2018), stars Natalie Portman as a biologist leading an all-female commando troop in a mysterious area called ‘the Shimmer’. , where their military weapons are defenseless against an inexplicable force that invades their body.
Garland’s last one, however, is a bit of a left turn. Like Ex Machina and Annihilation, it’s a chamber piece – isolating its characters in a bucolic sanctuary that turns into a nightmare, and letting them unravel the gnarled despairs that torment them. But Men cut back on sci-fi tropes in favor of something more sinister.
It fits right in with the recent wave of so-called elevated horror movies, which use the slice-and-dice gore of their predecessors as metaphors for greater existential anxiety.
Hereditary and Ari Aster’s Midsommar are mainstays of the genre, offering great ruminations on family dysfunction and relationship issues. Closer to home, Australian films Relic and cult favorite The Babadook have also told twisty stories of intergenerational trauma and motherhood in a creepy and frightening way.
And with such a title, Men could only be a horror movie.
Unfortunately, his title is also where it seems to reside.
Compared to its peers, the men’s high horror attempt seems paper thin. The film doesn’t need to have a political manifesto – it can, of course, remain purely sensory – but Garland knocks us out with a bloody manifesto: all men are the same, and all men are bad.
Like a drunken heart-to-heart in a nightclub bathroom, you can almost hear Garland raving “men are trash!” while smiling. As if it were a new idea for anyone born in the last century.
He hammers home his landmark by enlisting Kinnear to play – alongside Geoffrey – an assortment of male executioners.
There’s a naked man stalking Harper in the background like a satanic Where’s Wally. There is an incompetent policeman who arrests, then releases said stalker. There’s a young boy—a digitally aged Kinnear, both creepy and cherubic—who spars with Harper outside a local church, calling him, out of the blue, a “dumb bitch.”
To his credit, Kinnear’s performance borders on virtuoso, as he transforms with little more than a costume or accent tweak into a cornucopia of bad guys.
Buckley, too, is generally in good shape, fresh off of a rage-acclaimed turn in last year’s thorny drama The Lost Daughter. As Harper, she is outraged and fearless, though her eyes often betray silent desperation as the horrors around her draw closer.
And she is, of course, good at screaming.
But Garland abuses her two leads to capture the relevance of #MeToo while simply providing a surface screed against misogyny.
It’s a shame, because Men contains the kernels of many intriguing ideas.
In an early scene, familiar to anyone who’s watched the trailer, Harper calls into an endless tunnel, her voice echoing off its mossy edges to form an eerily symphonic melody. When she returns to the tunnel a few minutes later, she finds it condemned, in a state of disrepair.
Was there a wrinkle in time? Are we witnessing the breaking of Harper’s grip on reality? Garland chooses to ignore these narrative threads altogether.
There’s also a plethora of visually stunning imagery: James’ death, replayed as an intrusive memory; a stonecut of the Green Man, a leafy folk figure and mythical symbol of rebirth whom Garland recasts as a malevolent presence. Each time it appears, it is accompanied by a ghostly spin of light and a wailing, jarring score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow.
Without sufficient foundation, however, these images seem too abstract, looking more like a whimsical trailer than a movie.
Indeed, Men teeters precariously on the brink of self-parody.
As it builds to a bloody finale with mutilated limbs and a murderous game of hide-and-seek, the only appropriate response is a stifled laugh at the sheer, meaningless absurdity of it all.
It could be seen as high horror satire, a genre that has permeated the market to such an extent that its latest imitators, due to their ubiquity, are melting into a bloody mass. But that would probably be too generous.
Men is in theaters now.
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