There is much to like about Men—the new folk horror film from writer-director Alex Garland, not necessarily the gender. It’s all too easy to be drawn in by the film’s striking depiction of the toxic masculinity that pervades nearly every aspect of life, especially when filtered through the powerful story of one particular woman’s devastating trauma. Unfortunately, what starts as a very strong and legitimately scary exploration of these heady issues unravels in the final third, culminating in a bizarre finale full of grotesque body horror that fails to fully satisfy.
Harper (Jessie Buckley) has traveled alone to a beautiful estate in the English countryside to spend two weeks healing from the tragic death of her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu). James was emotionally abusive and controlling; in flashbacks, we see him blame Harper for their failing marriage, rip her phone out of her hand to check her messages, and threaten to kill himself in order to punish her for asking him for a divorce. “You’re scaring me,” he tells her, refusing to accept how terrifying his own behavior is to her.
On the surface, the peaceful, remote manor house that Harper is renting seems to be the ideal place to try and recover from such intense emotional trauma. Yet almost immediately, Harper’s trip takes a turn for the deeply unpleasant. While walking in the woods, entertaining herself with the musical echoes she conjures up in an old railway tunnel, she spies someone—or something—strange at the other end, silhouetted in the sunlight. When it begins running towards her, Harper flees…but that’s only the beginning of the chilling events that are unfolding around her.
The nearby village seems to be populated almost entirely by men: from the unhinged naked man who follows Harper out of the woods and tries to break into her house, to the teenage boy who reacts viciously when Harper politely turns down his request to play a game, to the vicar she confides in who accuses her of being complicit in James’ death, to the police officer who tells her they had to let the naked man who was stalking her go because he wasn’t actually doing any harm, was he? Even Jeffrey, the grizzled caretaker from whom Harper is renting the house, is almost threatening in his friendliness, refusing to accept Harper’s offer to help carry her bags or her request to pay for her own drink at the pub. All of these characters are played by the same man (Rory Kinnear), which adds an extra uncanny sense of discomfort to it all.
If you’re a woman—well, anyone really, but especially if you’re a woman—you will recognize these men and the way they’re treating Harper. You’ve seen them all before. That’s what makes them so scary—they’re men that you know. And having Kinnear play all of them drives home the fact that despite their different ages, professions, and behaviors, they’re all representative of the same monster: the toxic masculinity that constantly makes women feel as though everything is their fault, even the emotional and physical violence thrust upon them by others. “You’re imagining things,” people say. “You brought it upon yourself,” they argue. Soon, you might even start to doubt yourself, and to believe that what they’re saying is true—and that is what’s really scary.
In the Air and All Around
It’s a fascinating concept for a horror film, and for the most part, Men delivers. Cinematographer Rob Hardy, who previously collaborated with Garland on Ex Machina and Annihilation, captures both the surreal beauty of the country landscape and the way that beauty can suddenly turn scary in the wrong circumstance; what might first appear to be a lovely, sun-dappled field can quickly transform into an eerie, lonely plain that provides no place to hide from one’s pursuer. The flashback scenes in Harper’s flat on the banks of the Thames are lit almost apocalyptically, with the warm yellows and oranges of a sunset feeling ominous under the circumstances. Not only does this creative choice make the flashbacks feel all the more like the nightmares they are for Harper, but it also distinguishes them from the film’s current events in a way I appreciated.
The sound design and music of Men also add substantially to the overall spookiness of the film. Harper’s cheerful echoes in the tunnel recur later as a haunting refrain that goes well with Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s score, which is heavy on throaty chants and other sounds reminiscent of medieval times—times when women were, of course, beholden to men in nearly every way and blamed so often for what went wrong around them that they were burned as witches. These sounds, when paired with the focus on the natural landscape surrounding Harper, help put the folk into the film’s folk horror; they make the horrifying events of Men feel part of a longstanding tradition, something so inherently part of our world that it can feel near-impossible to fight it.
The notion of toxic masculinity being ingrained in the very earth upon which we stand grows more prominent as Men progresses; alas, this is also where the film’s story starts to go off the rails. The scenes of the village men essentially terrorizing Harper are absolutely frightening because they feel so real and relatable even when taking place in the surreal atmosphere of this film. But in the third act, Men turns abruptly into a bloody phantasmagoria that fails to resonate in the same way; despite being more explicitly horrific, it’s less stomach-turning than it is head-spinning. Buckley and Kinnear are both brilliant throughout the film—as to expect from two of the most reliably excellent actors working today—but even they couldn’t fully sell the film’s ending to me. Turns out, piling on the gore is nowhere near as scary or impactful as men just being, well, men.
Beautifully crafted and acted, Men is two-thirds of the way towards being one of the year’s great movies, which makes it all the more disappointing that the end credits arrive not with a bang, but a shrug.
What do you think? What are some of your favorite folk horror films? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Men opens in theaters in the U.S. on May 20 and in the UK on June 1, 2022. You can find more international release dates here.
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