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A24’S Men is 2022’s most controversial film yet – Review (Spoilers)
The newly widowed Harper (Jessie Buckley) embarks on a solo trip to the countryside to escape from her worries. However, once she arrives a string of bizzare events unravel a world of horror…
Folk horror justifies the human body to be connected to an ethereal being that is one with nature, as if the soil beneath a character’s feet is a reasoning, an aid in their emotive flow. Men, Alex Garland’s latest feat, is an earthy experience that assaults the viewer’s senses through compartmentalising what they may or may not have believed about gender politics, and how the very source of a threat runs deeper than anyone may have previously understood.
Beware spoilers ahead…
Known for Ex-Machina (2014) and Annihilation (2018), Garland’s filmography thrives in the communication between humanity and otherness. That otherness in his previous work has been primarily communicated through science and creatures, and these sci-fi-like stories all have one thing in common- each piece resonates with something higher that can not always be understood in the everyday, where tales of grief, despair, sorrow, and self-condemnation thrives.
Men elicits its own message in a convoluted but mesmerising way. The impactful gut punch swung at the audience within the first scene acts as a warning shot to the entirety of Men’s harsh reflection about the cycles of abuse. With the rest of this narrative portion told in flashbacks, it is slowly revealed that Harper’s escape to the countryside was a means of therapy, a place of solitude to heal from the loss of her abusive husband. A tumultuous debate ensued when Harper informed her partner James (Paapa Essiedu) that she wanted a divorce, with the presumption being lumped on his controlling behaviour. James reacts in a callous manner that far too many people have experienced, touching on the deep wounds from the more ‘quieted abuse’.
He begins with carefully telling Harper that her absence will result in his suicide, coinciding her to being his emotive murderer. Their argument continues after he catches her texting a friend that she is scared of his behaviour, resulting in the discussion becoming heated when he knocks Harper straight across the face, blasting her into the kitchen cupboards and leaving her with a bloody nose. Rightfully so, Harper kicks James out of the marital home before he makes his way to the upstairs balcony and falls (or as it’s suggested) ‘lets himself go’ from the railings, plummeting to his death right in front of Harper.
The suffering experienced in a domestic situation is not always as obvious as soap operas make it out to be. Slowly persuading social exclusion, demanding to see someone’s phone, controlling what attire is and isn’t suitable, and hanging a warning of ominous events over an individual’s head is what can go on behind closed doors without anyone else ever knowing. Men implicates this subtlety that harm can harbour. Harper’s past with James is just the tip of the thunderous iceberg that Men touches upon.
As Harper enters the grounds of her idyllic home for the next two weeks, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), the keeper of the manor is introduced. His tweed layered outfit, buckled front yellowed teeth, and upper-class clipped tones all scream true to the country-gentlemen stereotype. Here, as it will become clearer later on, Garland has not fallen trap to easy labelling of a character out of sheer ignorance, Geoffrey’s precise aesthetic and tone is very much deliberate, lathering up the scene for the unbearably gruesome horror to ensue as the film progresses. At first Geoffrey seems harmless, almost awkward, and very eager to make Harper feel comfortable and safe all on her own. Whilst a woman shouldn’t have to wear a metaphorical coat of armour to feel safe when solo travelling, it seems that Geoffrey is concerned that Harper, or Mrs. Marlowe (emphasis on the Mrs.) as he calls her, has not brought ‘hubby’ along for the trip.
After Garland has denoted adequate time to develop the background of Harper’s disposition, the viewer is welcomed into Men’s true motives. Lush emerald fields and abundantly leafed trees frame Harper as she ventures out on a walk through the forest. The land swallows her stature and becomes all-encompassing to the frame, illustrating the sheer vastness of Harper’s seclusion and tethering her to nature, encasing her with the trees as if she is part of the shrubbery. It suggested that Harper has been disconnected from herself ever since her widowing, becoming stricken with the grief and guilt that was forced upon her.
As her journey into the forest deepens, her demeanour becomes lighter and more at ease, finding comfort in the breeze of the cool wind amidst the evergreen architecture. This happiness continues after she makes her way down a muddied trail to the abandoned railway track. The outside of the tunnel is bleak and dauntly lit, highly juxtapositioned against the previous scenes of open brightness. However, her boost of merriment from the walk encourages her to walk into the disused channel where she discovers the echo effect that the tunnel makes. Since she’s finally feeling spirited again, glee takes over and she creates a quaint melody, singing little calls down the tunnel. All is finally well. That is until her vocal sessions receive a reply…A loud screechy reply at that.
The cathartic bliss is interrupted within this one single moment. And from this point forward all hell is unleashed. As the film unravels it turns out that the reply Harper heard was from a naked, gaunt man who stalked her back to the cottage. However, as Garland slowly reveals, this stalking event does not take up the entire film, instead this horrific incident is barely a drop in the ocean compared to the following events. This brief climax in the first act opens the door for a string of chilling encounters to occur. The male police officers assisting Harper in dealing with the assailant are easy to shift the blame, the priest who she bumps into whilst exploring the village is quick to judge, a rude schoolboy who she unfortunately meets is rude and threatening, and the male townspeople she witness at the local pub are all majorly eerie, enacting a silent dread that has become increasingly familiar to many over the years.
Despite the rise in awareness and rights, there has been an insurgence of violence towards women, with the primary assailant being men. These antagonists are not always overt boogeymen lurking around corners. No…They could be (as Garland rather unabashedly exposes) a friendly neighbour, a religious vicar, it can be a young boy, a stranger who you may have simply crossed paths with, they could even be a respected police officer-a figure of the law.
Harper’s relationship and the reasons as to why she ends up in the countryside in the first place is just a means to an end, shielding the true meaning that Men possesses. Many have argued that Harper’s damsel-in-distress status is a receding factor in the cinematic representation of women. Her panicking, paranoia, and trepidation is largely seen as steps put in place to make her weak. And of course with Garland being a man himself, Men has become the target point for heavy scrutiny. Yet, one could argue that by constantly pushing on-screen women to be powerhouses, devoid of emotion (especially considering Harper’s circumstances), and completely fearless, then a similar pressure is once again placed upon the female viewer. Audiences want women to be absent of trauma, but at the same time, the true pathology of a person (female or male) depicts a variety of emotions all at one time. The comments degrading Garland’s work, and more importantly Buckley’s performance, as being ‘too-sentimental’ is in itself the sort of criticism that Men actively wants to disavow. Harper feels how she wants to feel, reacts as she sees fit, and is determined to do whatever she wants, no matter who it may displease. In the horror genre fear and anxiety are the driving forces behind the film, so why would Harper not be a bundle of nerves in this situation? I know I would!
Whilst Men can stir passionate debates about representation and the censorship of feelings (as seen above), what also needs thorough examination is the ‘why’s’ behind the film’s message. Rory Kinnear, known for his roles in Black Mirror (“The National Anthem”) and the Daniel Craig saga of James Bond films, plays the role of all the men in the village. Through all of these numerous character performances being synched together by Kinnear’s presence, it’s hinted that no matter the age, career, or appearance the danger is always there. Thus, inflicting an additional layer of context into Men. Its as if Garland is playing on the current social climate’s phrasing of the political standpoint- “Not All Men ”. Of course, these matters deserve more than a mere nod here, but to keep matters simple, in summary it can be argued that Garland decides to target the prolonged toxic masculinity trope.
Moving on, Kinnear is not the only shining star that graces the screen with the presence of pure talent. Jessie Buckley tears the barriers between screen and viewer, persuading us that this film is not a veil or a sheer piece of entertainment, but an important step in modern horror. Buckley willingly goes through such stern emotions of melancholia and utter desolation, and in doing so she drags the viewer directly into the horrid events, heightening the already nervous sense of fear and granting Men with an ubiquitous power.
Men builds a tower of fear through alerting us of the dangers out there, whether that be the everyday threat from the residential creeper, or the seedy underbelly that lurks within the least suspecting character. The entire pretext Men grounds itself within is both human nature and the outdoors itself, with the phallic tree stalks, the dominating masculine presence, and the constant symbolism of ‘father nature’ stalking Harper wherever she goes. In a bold, but refreshing sense these undeniable mankind-like features are purposefully juxtaposed with feminine touches from the rounded ripe fruit that falls from the trees, the red painted innards of the cottage, and the film’s unforgettable conclusion.
Arguably, the mixed reviews reading Garland’s stance towards misogyny as detrimental to any progress made can be sympathised with. However, I would argue that Garland did not set out to make a propaganda piece confirming his stance, instead Men screens a small portion of gender politics as a discussion piece, not a tale that aims to immigrate his own ethos into the mix. We are invited to sit back and witness, and make up our own minds about what we think is going on- making Men more of an experience as well as a film.
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