My mind works in mysterious ways, which goes perfectly with this movie. I couldn’t stop thinking about the theme song to Two and a Half Men after this latest moviegoing experience. The jaunty, repetitive, silly song doesn’t match the intensity, but ranks about the same in level of testosterone. Horror films have full permission to go off the rails as long as you’re still riding along. As crazy as they were, A Nightmare on Elm Street and its sequels made sense if you bought into the basic premise. The newest release from writer/director Alex Garland (Ex Machina and Annihilation) captivated me until it went too far and lost me from that point forward. Men tries too hard to mix a message and symbolism with a creative concept and ends up neutering itself.
Garland’s previous projects won me over, so I was excited to see this third feature film. Ex Machina and Annihilation mixed technology and nature and topped them off with compelling stories. Men keeps technology almost out of the plot entirely and focuses on nature and the essence of humanity. Harper (Jessie Buckley) needs some time away after a bad fight with her husband James (Paapa Essiedu) and his tragic death. She finds a quaint old mansion in the English countryside that’s hundreds of years old, isolated enough to provide privacy and right down the road from the center of town if she feels like seeking out company. The landlord Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) ranks high on the creepy scale. Presumably, Harper won’t have to deal with him anyway. After a walk through the woods, Harper encounters a strange man, and things get progressively more terrifying and dangerous as she tries to decipher these events and her personal life.
If you don’t like the movie, Buckley and Kinnear don’t deserve the blame. Buckley conveys the fear that she’s experiencing, and you’ll probably be as freaked out as she is. I’ve never seen her before, so this was a good introduction to an actress with many roles in TV shows as well as films. Probably by design, Kinnear stands out. Not only does he play Geoffrey, but he also inhabits a number of other male characters, including the strange man in the woods. Essiedu only appears in flashbacks, and Harper’s friend Riley (Gayle Rankin) mostly pops up via video chat on Harper’s phone. Using makeup and special effects, Kinnear’s performance reminds me of just a few other times where actors have taken on this kind of challenge. Once you delve into the meaning and symbolism of Men, it logically follows that only one actress and one actor shoulder the burden of the production.
This is one of those movies where you’ll be able to talk about it long after you walk out of the theater. Even better, nobody’s opinion will be wrong. I was lucky to watch Men with a female friend who focused on different aspects of the movie even though we both understood what was going on and felt about the same overall. Symbolism and details abound, so you have to pay attention if you’re going to discover their meaning. During the very first frame, you’ll notice a detail about Harper that doesn’t get addressed until much later. Garland mixes shots of nature both beautiful and ugly — dandelion seeds floating in the wind and a deer’s corpse — with the series of events that test Harper. Obvious religious symbols appear like a lone apple tree a la the Garden of Eden and a stone baptismal font that has sculpted icons of a man on one side and a woman on the other. What does it all mean? How do Kinnear’s characters interact with Harper? At one point, things turn from serious to silly, and I went from enjoying the mystery to enduring the tedium. Garland makes Men too artsy and loses sight of the idea that drove him to produce it. Maybe Garland was inspired by Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us. Whereas those films followed through, Garland gets lost somewhere in the weeds. It’s a testament to his talent that, although I didn’t like the movie, I would love to discuss it with just about anybody, especially the director.
I was caught off guard by some amazing special effects late in the proceedings. Garland does his best David Cronenberg impression with his version of some intense scenes of what is known as “body horror.” Think of the modern versions of The Fly or The Thing, then turn it up to 11. I understand what Garland was trying to present, but this may be too intense for some people. I just reveled in the bizarre effects and must praise that crew for bringing to life somehow what Garland wanted. I can’t be sure with today’s digital effects, but it appeared to me that most of the crazy, bloody scenes were done practically on set instead of digitally after the fact.
Music occurs sparingly and makes an impact when used. Harper vocalizes in a tunnel. The resulting echoes and repetition sound just like the output of a looping station that some performer like Ed Sheeran might use in concert. Harper stands under a tree as it’s raining, and the visuals and choir vocals create a rapturous moment. Some missteps like weird images popping up on a phone and a car chase that shouldn’t happen indicate that Garland perhaps didn’t think through all elements of the plot. You could argue that some scenes are intended to be real, while others might be imagined. If they’re real, things happen that are impossible; if they’re imagined, Garland doesn’t distinguish them from reality with any familiar film techniques. Men might be a disappointment from a wildly creative filmmaker, yet I’ll still give him a try again based on his previous work, even if he decides to make a companion film called Women.