I was chatting to one of the cinema staff before this film started on Wednesday. He actually recognised me as someone who regularly came to see films at his venue and we got talking from there. (I am definitely one step closer to them greeting me by name when I walk in but I’ve not quite achieved that yet). When I came out then, he then asked me what I’d thought of the movie. Unfortunately I wasn’t really able to answer. He probably won’t approach me again.
The problem is that this is not the kind of film that you have an immediate coherent reaction to. It’s more the kind of thing you have to mull over for a while in the hope that you can make some sense of it before it either disappears from your memory completely or… haunts your nightmares and drives you insane.
If you’ve seen the trailers for this you’ll know it is about a young woman played by Jessie Buckley who suffers a trauma and takes time away in the country where every man (hey, that’s the cinema I was in) she meets looks like Rory Kinnear. This doesn’t prepare you for where it goes in the last twenty minutes though. It’s not overly scary but it is very very alarming. The Sun newspaper is reporting that lots of people have walked out on the theatre and on this occasion I don’t think they are making it up.
I certainly admire the boldness of what writer/director Alex Garland does here but actually I think the excess steals something away from the film. Up until this point Men is a gripping representation of the dread that women can feel in the face of male presence. Buckley’s Harper has been victim to some horribly toxic behaviour on the part of a partner and it has left her with some significant emotional scars. The way this is played is superb with Buckley and Garland actually pushing away from the idea of victimhood but still showing the insidious fear that she can’t release herself from. Hers is a very different portrayal of this than Elizabeth Moss in The Invisible Man; there is none of the twitching wide eyes and while I rate what Moss did too, this feels more relatable to what most women live with to some extent or another. It is interesting that the near identical appearance of all of the males she comes across does not seem to be noticed by her; we see the apparent threat that all men carry but she does not. It isn’t plaguing her, she is not suffering unreasonable paranoia, but it is there visually for us in a way it is subconsciously for her.
The tension builds magnificently as we approach that extended denouement then, before it is replaced by weirdness and gross body horror. As such climax it has been promising is never quite realised. It also steps back from the message it has had up until this point that not all men are actually dangerous, just that they carry this menace. Promising Young Woman handled notion this better. That film didn’t let men off the hook but it didn’t demonise them either.
I won’t give details of the precise imagery that the film closes with, needless to say that I have been able to work toward an interpretation of it rather than succumbing to ghastly nightly terrors. There is something here about how the men won’t stop coming at Harper and how toxic masculinity breeds more toxic masculinity in an arrogant and distorted appropriation of female power but it doesn’t stand against comparable resolutions Garland has found in his other films. It has none of the bitter beauty of the end of Annihilation or the brutal poetry of Ex Machina.
Men does have some great points to make about contemporary gender relations, the uninvited power femininity holds over some males and the blame they attach to this (something that was also better managed in Ex Machina) but it loses its subtlety.
Right, I have to go back and find that screen attendant now and tell him. I’m actually there again tonight. (Hmm, I do go there a lot don’t I?)