Humanity has been working towards balancing male and female energy since time immemorial. Is true equality what we seek, or is a mutual respect that acknowledges the differences in gender a better goal? The challenge is that people are flawed and just as often motivated by fear, insecurities, or inadequacies as by honor, respect, and love. Harper (Jessie Buckley), the protagonist of the new surreal horror film MEN, knows all about it, after her marriage to James (Paapa Essiedu) falls apart in the most horrible possible way.
To recover from the tragedy, she rents a beautiful English manor in the rural countryside. It’s lovely, historic, well-appointed, and has grounds that are the very definition of idyllic; it’s Eden, as suggested by the apple trees in the yard. But she hasn’t even stepped foot in the house before she encounters her first peculiar local man, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear). He’s a doddering, well-meaning country squire, but there’s something off about him, something that makes Harper go on alert. She’s glad when he leaves with his odd questions and inappropriate queries about why her husband isn’t with her.
Exploring the local area, she encounters a series of increasingly strange men, from the silent man in the woods, a scruffy, naked man who seems to be stalking her, to a rude boy, a policeman, an alarming vicar, a barkeep, and more. All of whom are portrayed by Rory Kinnear. Their personalities are all facets of the masculine, aspects of her relationship with men that also encompasses – and might even explain – the terrible end of her marriage. Indeed, as a surrealist horror film, it’s possible that MEN actually takes place within Harper’s guilt-wracked mind. Certainly, her increasingly bizarre experiences suggest that it’s her nightmarish journey of healing, her attempt to closely examine her relationship with the many facets of masculinity, even when it’s a terrifying prospect.
Writer/Director Alex Garland has previously delivered two excellent genre films, Ex Machina and Annihilation, both of which explore aspects of what it means to be human and how our worst traits can sometimes overpower our best intentions. The former asks one of the great questions of sci-fi, what does it mean to be human? The latter film leans into surrealism with its underlying exploration of nature versus nurture as embodied in our genetic destiny. MEN turns up the dial to 11 on these questions, offering a lens through which we are forced to consider the good and bad of masculinity and what it means to be a man in both historical and contemporary society.
It’s also weird, troubling, occasionally scary, and rather gross and extraordinarily visceral in some of its visual effects. The imagery will stick with you far after the closing titles. The music is haunting and brilliantly woven into the story; pay attention to how melodies are introduced and then come back with much more intensity later in the story.
Don’t be lulled into a false sense of calm through the first portion of the film. The triggering sequence with Harper’s breakup with James is intense, and it’s just the starting point for her inner journey, as embodied by the many faces of Geoffrey and his male ilk throughout the story. The final act is intense and alarming, but keep asking yourself what does it mean? and you’ll begin to see the genius underlying this very unique and challenging horror film.
MEN is a movie that is somewhat akin to a really aggressive therapeutic massage, you might regret the decision while laying on the table, but a few minutes, an hour, a day later you’re thankful that you stuck it out. I fully expect some people will walk out of the film because of the alarming imagery, but they’ll miss out on one of the most engaging and thought-provoking films of the year. Two days after the screening, my adult children and I continue to discuss meaning, implication, and metaphor in the film.