‘Men’ Review: Trash Indeed

Still recovering from the death of her husband James (Paapa Essiedu), Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) has rented a country cottage, retreating to the sort of stone-and-brick village that makes her blue car look like an intruder. The landlord, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), seems harmless enough, insofar as she won’t be seeing him very often after the introduction. He’s an eccentric sort of fellow, who I feel comfortable referring to with the word “fellow” because he is perhaps as British as it is humanly possible to be. To a friend (Gayle Rankin), Harper remarks that he is a “very specific type,” all mumbles and teeth and chortles at his own jokes. He asks if Harper plays piano, and she does but she lies because he’s probably the sort of guy who will decide she ought to play something and won’t leave until she does.

As Men goes on, we recognize something odd: Geoffrey has the same face as a police officer, who has the same face as a vicar, who has the same (digitally de-aged) face as a shitty teenager, who has the same face as a naked man in the woods who’s stalking Harper. At first, these similarities are more half-glimpsed and suspected rather than overt. Harper never seems to react or remark upon it, and even beyond differences in clothing and facial hair, none of the Geoffrey-faced men behave like Geoffrey, who could pass for a rude British caricature.

If we have doubts, though, they’re assuaged when Harper enters a bar. Its’s the first time we see multiple men in the same place, and they all definitely look the same: the bartender, the patrons at the table, the police officer who informs Harper that they’ve released the stalker from custody because he didn’t seem to mean any harm. Oh, and Geoffrey is there, too. It’s perhaps Men‘s most effective and concise moment, and not only does writer/director Alex Garland arrive at it distressingly early, but he struggles to go anywhere with it afterwards.

A Song for Geoffrey

I want to emphasize that the film is reasonably promising up to that point. It milks a decent amount of dread out of some unique images, which are meant to unsettle for their cleanliness and specific strangeness rather than because they are classically spooky. Even the initial vision we get of James’s death is fairly restrained, showing him tumbling past a window, facing the glass as though in shock. Later, we see the splat and the spearing on an iron fence, but for much of the film we have only the fall to go on, the last few moments of life left in his body before its mutilation.

The cottage does have vaguely creepy blood-red walls, but they appear plausibly part of the decor rather than an obvious signal that something is off. Greenery abounds, from the apple tree in the yard to the potted plants that dot the interior and encircle the building; it’s a well-kept place that probably was not cheap to rent out for 2 weeks. When Harper goes out for a walk, vivid leaves fleck the forest paths, which are visible but not too intrusive on its natural beauty.

Initially, the huge tunnel in the woods seems innocuous, a wide orifice in the world with a distant exit, whose light Harper blots out with her body when the camera is positioned just so. There’s a neutrality to its prettiness and its emptiness; it could be somebody’s desktop background. When Harper steps into the tunnel and the camera frames the light behind her, it doesn’t look oppressive at all.

The distant silhouette at the exit is what flips the view into something tense and foreboding. He stands up, as though awakened. Then he runs through, screeching in a way that subsumes and perverts the little song Harper was playing around with using the tunnel echoes, and she flees. This is before we learn he has Geoffrey’s face, or that he’s naked, or that he’s mutilating himself and sticking leaves under his skin.

The mystery of the environment and the men within it grows steadily and effectively, until it comes time to build on a, by now, very well-established point. It becomes very clear very quickly that Garland has little else up his sleeve after the bar scene; the tension gives way to the rote rhythms of home invasion, hardly livened up by an intruder who keeps altering his appearance. Horror can work near-exclusively as metaphor, but it needs to actually go somewhere; Men feels like it was constructed around precisely one idea that it keeps outlining and coloring in, as though it’s trying to run out the clock.


Patriarchy 101

The later scenes where the men attack Harper give us nothing that we haven’t internalized up to that point to better effect. We get it in dialogue, when Harper unloads her troubles to the vicar and talks about what happened to James. The teenage boy has called her a “stupid bitch” and run off, but the vicar is attentive and polite. James died after an abusive episode: he threatened to kill himself when she asked for a divorce, and then she kicked him out of the apartment after he struck her. His fall from the upper level is never clarified; was he trying to climb in through the balcony, or was he fulfilling the promise he made, to put his death on her conscience?

The vicar does not sympathize. He remarks that Harper must feel bad that she drove James to it and failed to give him a chance to apologize, not in an angry or accusatory way but in a calm, thoughtful tone that belies the hideousness of his words. He empathizes not with the woman in front of him but with the man described to him, because empathizing with an abusive man he never met is instinctual. By the time Harper goes to the bar and hears about the stalker’s release, the point is quite clear: men support men. The similarity of the faces, metaphorical or no, is a visual representation of the patriarchy.

And yet, the film keeps going, as though this is a particularly salient point, as though it’s not more or less the content equivalent of a short film. The sheer repetitive obviousness only drains the ensuing horrific imagery of its potential power, with lots of splitting and spawning orifices that fail to disturb or unsettle because they loudly jangle around the metaphor like someone who’s wearing too much jewelry. They’ve been made sensible and unmysterious, because Garland has so cleanly established what they are supposed to mean.

Most gallingly predictable of all is how we learn so little about Harper. This was ostensibly the point of Garland’s somewhat superior film Ex Machina, which also addresses violence visited upon women through the way two men project onto a female android only to learn that she is not who they constructed in their heads. On its face, the shift in perspective should be an improvement; Harper actually speaks to another woman, and neither of them get naked like the women in Ex Machina do across the board while the men conspicuously do not. However, the level of insight and interiority remains just as limited, only now without the level of remove that suggests the thinness of character is actually the point. With Men, Alex Garland is repeating himself to diminishing returns, like a guy who won’t stop telling people that he took a women’s studies course one time.