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“Men” (Courtesy A24)

Alex Garland’s Folk Horror ‘Men’ Trips in the Woods

June 15, 2022

 

Within the opening moments of Alex Garland’s new film “Men,” the main character Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) arrives at the pastoral English countryside cottage at which she will be holidaying.

After climbing out of her Ford Fiesta she wanders through the garden. Passing by an apple tree, she plucks an apple and takes a greedy, juicy bite out of it. She is almost immediately scolded by the keeper of the cottage (Rory Kinnear) for partaking of  “forbidden fruit.” The word “metaphor” might as well have appeared in bold, neon lighting during this unsubtle moment.

A warning sign of what is to come, “Men,” is a self-conscious, pretentious amalgamation of horror and metaphor, biblical and mythological allegory and creeping dread as Alex Garland attempts to indict the Original Sin of the titular gender.

After the violent death of her husband (Paapa Essiedeu), which is given to the audience via flashbacks, Harper arrives at the cottage in desperate need of some rest and healing. In true horror film fashion, that is the last thing she receives. No sooner than when Harper sets her bags down is she being harassed by every man in the country village.

A nude man stalks her and attempts to break into the cottage, a crime quickly waved off by the police. A mask-wearing little boy asks Harper to play hide-and-seek and when she rebuffs him, the child calls her a “stupid bitch.” The smarmy village vicar wonders aloud whether Harper was responsible for her husband’s death.

Taking the Twitter comeback of “Yes, all men” to heart, the village’s men are all played by Kinnear in various wigs, fake teeth and CGI. The only women in the film besides Harper are a devoted friend (Gayle Rankin) that she talks to over FaceTime, and a sympathetic but ineffectual police woman. The harassment, assaults and gaslighting build in intensity to a phantasmagoric and bloody explosion of artsy body horror.

Self-Important Elevated Horror

“Men” aims to be much more than a “mere” horror movie like “Psycho” or other other gold standard Hollywood horrors. It is not so concerned with things as trivial as grace, rhythm, humor, diversion and emotional reactions. “Men” is not even a “movie” it is a “Film” with a capital “F”.

With its clunky, artless use of symbolism and thematic concern with “trauma,” “Men” is “elevated horror” to the point that it almost plays as parody. It is a movie that wants to be taken seriously, and tries so hard to be great that it is not even very good. “Men” has a handsome sheen that can trick one into walking out of the movie theater saying, “what does it all mean?” and thinking the movie terribly intellectual.

The characters on screen have no warmth, no humor or desires, no contradictions, no quirks, no backgrounds or past, so why should I care about their present or future? Why should I worry for Jessie Buckley? Why should I be scared of Rory Kinnear? Caring about the characters is a crucial part of storytelling, that goes doubly so for horror. I don’t mean in the naive sense that one must like the characters, but they have to at least be interesting. 

Buckley is one of the most exciting and interesting actresses working currently, but not even she can save the character of Harper. Harper has no personality, just a laundry list of trauma. As though traumatized is the only thing that a woman can be.

As though Traumatized is the Only Thing That A Woman Can Be

“Men” seeks to be about the plight of women in the modern day. The film attempts to turn misogynistic micro and macro aggressions into horror. Unfortunately, Garland’s messaging is shallow. It never amounts to anything deeper than “wow, it sure seems to suck to be a woman. Misogyny is crazy.” 

Imagery is thrown around, but not strung together with any sort of coherence. There isn’t a cogent argument here, and what appears to be feminism reveals itself to look quite a lot like mansplaining.

 

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@abovemegan

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