A woman is terrorized by a number of different men while on a country retreat in Men, an evocative and thematically rich new horror movie from director Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation) that had its Czech premiere at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and releases in Prague cinemas from July 28.
Men stars Jessie Buckley (I’m Thinking of Ending Things) as Harper, who decides to go on a scenic retreat in the English countryside in the wake of the shocking suicide of her abusive ex-boyfriend (played in flashbacks by I May Destroy You’s Paapa Essiedu).
Things initially seem pleasant at the rustic estate that Harper has booked, as socially awkward caretaker Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) gives her a tour of the place. That evening, Harper jokes with friend Riley (Gayle Rankin) via a zoom call over a glass of wine.
But the next day, Harper encounters something strange while taking an idyllic walk in the countryside. In one of Men’s most terrifying scenes, Harper playfully shouts to herself to hear an echo through a long, dark tunnel… only to see the silhouette of a figure stand up at the other end of the tunnel, and begin to walk towards her.
Later on, Harper phones the police when she discovers the figure – an entirely-naked vagrant – has followed her home and is now peering through the window. The filthy nude man is also played by Kinnear… as is the male policeman who comes to take care of him, assuring Harper that everything will be OK.
Kinnear, in fact, plays almost every male character in Men, including a menacing priest and teenage boy that Harper has successive confrontational encounters with. Garland gives us the perspective of Harper, who after a traumatic event no longer views men as distinct individuals but instead as a collective threat.
It’s a bold allegory and Kinnear steals the show, creating a handful of distinct personalities and imbuing each of them with a different level of menace. Only the sight of his middle-aged face pasted on top of a teenage boy briefly ruins the effect. Buckley, meanwhile, is captivating in a difficult role, her character coming to terms with her trauma as increasingly bizarre events unfold around her.
But at a certain point, it becomes apparent that we are not watching an actual story but rather a parable. Like Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, the actual events of the film are rendered unimportant; it’s the meaning behind them that matters. And if you still don’t get it, Paapa Essiedu’s character connects all the dots during the film’s final moments.
It would be difficult for Garland to match his previous two films as director, the impeccably-crafted A.I. chamber drama Ex Machina and the visually-arresting sci-fi thriller Annihilation. Men, which feels like it was conceived and shot in a minimalistic style to accommodate for pandemic restrictions, doesn’t quite match the quality of those efforts.
Men is still well worth checking out, however, and even if the bravura final act doesn’t resonate on narrative levels it makes a bloody impact; an unexpectedly gory climax mashes up real-world horror with queasy artificial effects that recall exploitation films like Xtro (also, coincidentally, shot in the British countryside.)