In a recent interview with the New York Times, Alex Garland confessed to being a reluctant director who often feels like it’s something he must force himself to do. In the case of his latest film, Men, which he both wrote and directed, he perhaps needn’t have bothered. Unlike previous Garland-helmed projects Ex Machina and Annihilation (itself an adaptation of my book), Men suffers from a less structured storyline and a weak, ridiculously gory third act that feels both overlong and perfunctory. The third act also brings the movie’s already incredibly obvious subtext up to the surface of the film — a little like if a human being were walking around with their internal organs hanging off the outside of their body.
The film chronicles the retreat of Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) to the countryside to recover from the trauma of an abusive husband falling past their apartment window in slow-mo before being artfully splayed out on the pavement below in a part of London with no other people or police or ambulances.
Once ensconced in a fairly opulent manor, Marlowe begins the process of being terrorized, gaslit, and mentally abused by a parade of men all played by Rory Kinnear — in bald face, naked penis, scruffy-head, and donkey teeth modes, most of them fleshed out to the rough equivalent of the level of writing you’d expect from a bad Monty Python sketch. Except serious.
Along the way, Marlowe portentously picks an apple from a tree, just like Eve (heard of her?) and displays terrible peripheral vision when a naked dude stands right outside the parlor windows as, inside, she talks on the phone to a thinly sketched-out friend, Riley Nolastname (Gayle Rankin). Riley appears to exist only as some small reminder of an outside world and so the screen can morph the friend’s face into a weird skeletal creature from time to time, signifying nothing. The friend also allows Marlowe to tell her friend things the viewer already knows while not impacting on the plot at all. But at least Marlowe isn’t alone the whole movie, having to react to things that happen without someone to talk to.
Also starring in the movie, in an uncredited recurring cameo, is a Green Man pillar in a church, with a fertility figure on the back. We know the Green Man pillar is significant because foreboding music plays whenever the camera focuses on it. Maybe this is just the sound a Green Man pillar makes when it needs to draw attention to itself, but what exactly does it signify? Is the Green Man behind all the gaslighting and stalking of Marlowe on the country estate? We’ll never know. In fact, these nods are so cursory or cliched that Men feels more in conversation with horror films generally than with the classics of British folk horror, which derive a sense of dread from the eccentricities of people who adhere to rituals-gone-wrong (or oh so right).
The U-turn from science-based storytelling to folk horror aside, Men shares an underpopulated quality, a kind of scarcity of populations, common to Garland’s work. It’s a quality he often uses to his advantage — and there’s a thrill I think Garland’s fans feel in how he’s managed to navigate a system that often does not reward imagination or originality to get unique, ambitious movies made.
However, this underpopulated quality, sometimes related to budget, tends to restrict his range. It’s difficult to imagine Garland directing or writing a historical comedy of manners, complete with a sense of humor and extensive party scenes involving dozens of characters in the same room at once. This scarcity has increasingly been reflected in the acting, first in the flat affect of several characters in Annihilation and then in some of the acting in his excellent series DEVS, and here in the flashback scenes to the conversations between Marlowe and her husband James (Paapa Essiedu).
None of the great cinematography in the movie’s first half can replace actual momentum or character detail.
Famously, Garland does extensive read-throughs of scenes before filming, and then does few takes of any one scene. Here, this may have robbed parts of Men of spontaneity. The flashback scenes exhibit a flatness, even in extremes of anger, that renders them stylized, mannered, and devoid of feeling. Even the cliche of the two at the start of their relationship frolicking in dandelion fields might have helped us understand why they are even together. The lack of emotional detail extends to a main character completely defined by her trauma and her relationship to her husband, as if Garland means to bleed his own scarcity dry so all we are left with are husks. We learn nothing about Marlowe’s job except it requires looking at a spreadsheet and saying something vague on the phone to her boss or fellow employee. Nor does her occupation impact the plot.
By contrast, the set up for Ex Machina has a clearly defined purpose (test an AI project) and the structure is set mostly by the series of interviews the visiting AI expert has with the AI, while a suitably smarmy AI creator has his own experiment in mind. Similarly, in Annihilation, the idea of an expedition into the Shimmer creates both structure and clearly defined character roles. These roles may be “types,” but we learn a few details about each character to hang our hopes on. The limited series DEVS, which provided more room for a story to breathe, had some drift, but was set on a tech bro campus and always came back to the murder mystery and physical experiment at its core. In all three cases, work is incredibly important to purpose and forward narrative drive.
Men does provide splendid characterization of the decaying countryside and some stunning moments of Marlowe walking through a forest full of bluebells, along with excellent use of derelict buildings in the midst of verdant greenery. Not to mention a brilliant and scary tunnel scene and a slow-mo dandelion-tuft-up-the-nose moment that, if you’ll forgive me, both felt like a dream of Annihilation. But none of this great cinematography (Rob Hardy’s stellar work) in the movie’s first half can replace actual momentum or character detail.
If Marlowe is a cipher, then all the men in Men are types. This is so clearly and obviously intentional that it’s hard to argue with a didactic essay in movie form. Yes, men can often be terrible and jerks and operate within a misogynistic system that gives them the power to be casually abusive without consequence. But one can agree with the sentiment and sympathize with the situation without being convinced that the heavy-handedness qualifies, in 2022, as a useful addition to the pantheon of “feminist” movies. For one thing, we have a lot of women directors and writers creating much more nuanced and, more brutal depictions of the systems we work within and the bad actors that inhabit them.
Ciphers and types gradually wear down the integrity of a movie’s surface reality. Rory Kinnear is a talented actor but the decision to have him play all the terrible men has perhaps unintended consequences. It does, for one thing, mean the audience laughed the third time they saw Kinnear in yet another role and also when they saw naked Green Man apprentice Kinnear the third time, in the dark, his penis flashing warily white against the gloom. I feel this was fair laughter at what was meant as a dire dramatic moment — and not the kind of uncomfortable laughter that came over the audience during a film like Midsommar. It’s just a lot and tonally sometimes off — while missing an opportunity to use different actors to actually catalog a more diverse set of misogynistic tendencies.
What do you call a film in which the woman at the center of it is continually retraumatized even as she is trying to recover from a perhaps misplaced but understandable guilt over her husband’s death? It’s not that Marlowe doesn’t fight back as the incursions of The Kinnears intensify, but that the blunt cruelty of the scenes and the sheer repetition begins to rankle. There’s also always a point in a horror movie where you wonder why a character is staying in the haunted house and although Men side steps some of the worst crimes in this category, the question still lingers over some scenes. Just get in the damn car and leave. Ignore your generic screen friend’s stupid reason for why you should stay. Your guilt will still follow you around — you don’t need to see more gross peen thrown into the bargain, ma’am.
It's hard to talk about the bloody, visceral third-act scenes in Men without spoilers, but spoilers you shall now receive: A Kinnear Green-Man contaminated golem of a kind breaks into Marlowe’s house and begins to give birth in bloody detail to a new Kinnear bad man, then that one births yet another, and so on and so forth, until finally the last of these Kinnears births Marlowe’s dead husband, who sits beside her on a couch.
The effect at such length isn’t, in the end, uncomfortable in a useful way except to make the viewer mostly focus on Kinnear, rather than Buckley, as the movie goes all-in. By being so visceral, the moment eclipses any connection with Marlowe. Unfortunately, too, for some of the special effects to play out, Marlowe has to stand around and wait for that to happen, which doesn’t help the pacing and reminds us Jessie Buckley is a brilliant actor who deserves better.
This bloody, sloppy, recursive “human slinky” moment goes on so long that it pushes through shock, or discomfort, or even humor, to finally plop down nothing but heavy handedness — unlike the doppelganger lighthouse scene in Annihilation .
Tailoring the eruption of the uncanny to Marlowe’s trauma makes the uncanny so utterly knowable it has little power beyond the tactile visceral quality of its manifestation. Oddly, in making this moment about the subtext, Garland has robbed it of any true resonance for us — similar to how use of a fixed Freudian meaning for a symbol deadens that symbol in text or film because it will always and forever stand for one thing.
That the ending brings us back to Marlowe’s relationship with her violent husband is both a surprise and not a surprise, but the real shock is the display of James Marlowe’s body. The broken body of a black man lies in repose, lanced by a wrought-iron fence in a disturbingly artful way. Piled on top of a film full of abuse, with no real contrast, it struck me the wrong way.
Are parts of Men unlike anything you’ve ever seen? Are parts beautifully shot and eerie? Absolutely. But, in the end, it feels not just like an underwhelming script but like a bad fit between subject matter and creator.
Jeff VanderMeer is an author, editor, and literary critic.