She’s startled by the sound of acoustic guitar strings on the soundtrack. Bathed in orange-tinted light through the curtains of her flat, the bloody-nosed Harper (Jessie Buckley) moves toward the window as her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu), fatally falls in slow motion outside.
While the circumstances of James’ death aren’t entirely clear, what is clear is that Harper needs time away to recover from the loss, so she rents a seemingly lovely house in the English countryside for two weeks. Upon her arrival, she exchanges exceedingly British pleasantries with the homeowner Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) and checks in via FaceTime with her friend Riley (Gayle Rankin). While enjoying a nature walk, Harper gets the feeling she’s being followed by a mysterious presence, and soon learns that all is not right in this quaint village.
Men is the third directorial effort from writer/director Alex Garland, who has gone full horror this time after flirting with the genre in the mind-bending Annihilation. His latest effort may be the simplest in terms of pure story, but also his most provocative in terms of how the film is being marketed, and how it tries to make good on those promises. Those triggered by the trailer (which gives away a casting choice I wish I hadn’t known beforehand) may be relieved to know that the mischievous distributor A24 is playing up the gender politics more than the film actually does. Sure, concepts of the patriarchy and toxic masculinity are brought forth in the subtext, but like many other horror films before it, Men comes back to the fascinating and unique ways we process grief and trauma.
Another staple of the horror genre is the inclusion of religious allusions. Even if you’re not looking too closely for Biblical references, Garland sets up an easy one for us at the outset. When Harper arrives at the rental home, she observes a large apple tree on the grounds, and without thinking, grabs one of the abundant fruits and takes a bite as Geoffrey looks on from the window. “Mustn’t do that,” he jokingly chides minutes later when they meet, claiming the apple is “forbidden fruit” before rushing to say he’s kidding after a quick beat. Outside of the more obvious Genesis nods to the Garden of Eden and the fall of man, there are mythical and literary quotes from Agamemnon odes and Yeats poems as well. But when it comes to the larger allegory at play, religion seems to be on Men’s mind more than anything else.
Visually, Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy earmark the three chronological acts with their own distinguishable hue. Everything prior to Harper’s stay in the rural village is overlaid with a soft orange, while the chapters involving the early parts of her sabbatical are punctuated by the lush natural greenery that surrounds her. It isn’t until the trip really starts to unravel that the color red starts to permeate the frame, not unlike Vertigo or Suspiria. Garland lingers on certain shots, like a many-branched tree or a long echoey tunnel, for so long it becomes difficult not to look for symbolism and a greater meaning in the images. Some movies invite and reward analysis and interpretation over multiple views; this one demands it.
But crucially, the experience of watching Men is as viscerally exciting in the moment as it is intellectually engaging afterwards. Garland doesn’t forget he’s making a horror movie, and he knows how to play with our expectations and emotions. Aiding the effort is the brilliantly effective score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, which centers around a four-note melody that Harper chirps down a tunnel and forms a leitmotif that grows uglier as time goes on, like an apple rotting after its skin is exposed.
In intensely demanding roles, Buckley and Kinnear offer some of the very best work of their respective careers and contribute perfectly to the film’s persistently unnerving tone.
Fearless and fervent, Men is Garland’s most accomplished brain-bender yet.
New movies coming this weekend
Opening only in theaters is Top Gun: Maverick, a belated followup to the 1986 classic starring Tom Cruise and Jennifer Connelly that follows one of the Navy’s top aviators as he trains a new class of Top Gun graduates for a specialized mission.
Also playing exclusively in theaters is The Bob’s Burgers Movie, an animated musical comedy starring H. Jon Benjamin and Dan Mintz involving the beleaguered Belcher family as they try to save their restaurant from closing as a sinkhole forms in front of it.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Emergency, a satirical thriller starring RJ Cyler and Donald Elise Watkins about a trio of college students who must weigh the pros and cons of calling the police when faced with an unexpected situation en route to a party.