Written by Jack Ransom
Director Alex Garland has received critical acclaim for his previous two sci-fi features (Ex Machina & Annihilation), both of which had doses of social commentary running through their veins and suitably disturbing horror imagery. Though not particularly subtle in its execution of its messages and featuring fairly surface level characters, Men’s warped, consistently off-kilter atmosphere is utterly enrapturing and its imagery and sound design both tread the line between horrific and melancholic.
A24’s latest distributed feature. Men is set in the aftermath of a personal tragedy, where Harper (Jessie Buckley) retreats alone to the beautiful English countryside, hoping to find a place to heal. However, someone or something from the surrounding woods appears to be stalking her.
Pacing-wise the film is a slow burner yet it never drags at all. We follow Harper as she roams the countryside and interacts with the locals. The plot may not have a sense of overarching progression or a goal so to speak, but it always feels like it is constantly building to something as the intensity of Harper’s encounters with the villagers and the growing harshness of the interspersed traumatic flashbacks that help paint the picture of her current life choice. There is a layer of cryptic folk-horror integrated throughout, which is heavily ambiguous but undeniably striking.
Visually the film is stunning. The cinematography is beautiful throughout and excels in taking the mundane and making it so much more. The lush prominent greens of the countryside and vast spacious fields are gorgeously captured and the extended montages of Harper immersing herself in the surrounding wilderness make for an intimate and almost relaxing experience. The use of reflections, focus pulls, morbid stone carvings, framing that will have your eyes darting across screen for any potential threats and an incredibly prominent and spine-chilling score/sound design. I won’t go into details, but the finale sequence is one of the most nightmare-inducing and grotesque sequences I have ever seen put to film.
The characters may not be particularly too layered, but the performances are excellent from the handful of cast members. Jessie Buckley conveys an aura of vulnerability and you sense weight of trauma inside her. This makes those isolated moments of happiness so much more impactful. She also unleashes throat tearing screams and paranoia as the tension ramps up. Rory Kinnear’s multiple Men portrayal is a constantly disorienting experience and his leering, toothy, piercing expressions (even when in his more welcoming demeanour) is consistently uncomfortable. Lastly Paapa Essiedu is a vicious, distressed and unpredictable presence in the smattering of flashbacks.
Men is a twisted, chilling, beautiful and disturbing experience. Creeping along at an appropriate and engrossing slower pace and boasting some of the most memorable sequences and shots of the year. Its messages and themes certainly are familiar, but the leering inclusion of a potential folklore inflicted element and superb performances certainly carry the less ambiguous or layered moments.