Airbnb's don’t get much worse than the one found in Alex Garland’s MEN, the latest psychological mind-boggler from the man who finds comfort in digging into his character’s usually unhinged psyches. In the likes of his previous works such as ANNIHLATION or EX-MACHINA, Garland found the literal and metaphorical horror in the unknowability of not only the worlds he’d craft through his scripts but in the feelings they left in the audience once they concluded. However, even as MEN finds the director/writer operating on a much more sparse level compared to the world ending vibes of ANNIHLATION, the filmmaker for once splays out his film’s meaning and interpretation front and center, starting of course with its emotionally loaded yet simple title.
Even from just a glance of the film’s poster where the title is plastered over a creepy Rory Kinnear face in blood red and bolded font, a viewer can probably guess where MEN has its targets set. Indeed, Harper (Jessie Buckley) knows the dangers and terror that can be found in the opposite sex, and if she didn’t she’ll soon learn that sometimes the male population may in fact really have it out for women. Recovering from a brutally traumatic death of a loved one, Harper takes a much needed saunter to a picturesque village where she plans to chill and unplug. Unsurprisingly, the men (or it a man?) of the village seemingly have other, more nefarious plans, for their only female guest.
Possibly Garland’s most comedic (relatively speaking at least) output to date, MEN nonetheless digs into a unique space of finding horror in the idea of Rory Kinnear going full NORBIT, as the actor plays almost every single male presence found in the village Harper visits. Putting on different accents and wigs and attitudes — which are of course always tinged with a some variation of toxic masculinity that lets neither Harper or the audience fully relax even when Kinnear plays seemingly “good” men — Kinnear keeps the film successfully gravitating between its two polar tones. As the damsel in literal distress, Buckley manages to bring a needed bite and hardened edge to a character that for far too long has fallen victim to bouts of unchecked manhood before. Where one can believe Buckley’s screams of pain and fear as she’s stalked throughout the film, one can also find the genuine fury buried under Harper’s at first easy going appearance. As the film slow burns its way towards its inevitably violent conclusion (as all A24-tinged horror movies operate nowadays), MEN dives headfirst into the horrors of cyclical abusive men and eclectic forest myths.
Trapping Harper in a soft, circular frame that gives the film a sort of dream like quality, Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy visualize the creeping dread and danger that threatens Harper around every corner. Even in the lush forests of the village, where everything takes on a supernaturally green hue, Garland positions his main character in the eye of a malevolent storm fueled by toxic masculinity, a specter that our main character can’t seem to escape, almost as if she was cruelly destined to endure the malevolence of men. Of course, even before the film’s final act violently visualizes this unheeded cycle of brutal masculinity experienced by Harper, MEN has already laid its cards out on the table in regards to its message. While the message itself is one that could no doubt benefit from a horror-tinged lens (even though one could argue Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN already did that in 2020), Garland’s dialogue and story progression takes out any space for interpretation or deeper digging. Not to say that blunt messaging isn’t effective but it doesn’t help when the surrounding movie embraces other familiar slow burn horror cliches on its path to a grand statement. If you’ve seen one scene of a character slowly being stalked through some sort of environment you’ve seen them all, at least in the way MEN displays it.
Nevertheless, Garland is always due to deliver at least one unforgettably disturbing image, and MEN no doubt delivers multiple instances of that in its blood filled finale. But no matter how grotesque the images the filmmaker throws to get his message across, the message itself remains familiar, leaving the overall film feeling a bit empty. Just like its title, MEN is simple and blunt, even as it seems to try and dig deeper.