A recurrent aspect of the evocative horror film Men is a series of flashbacks to an argument in an apartment that takes place before the story's main events. Bathed in orange light, these scenes feel like moments out of time, removed from the serene world just outside. They see an exhausted Harper, played by a typically riveting Jessie Buckley (Oscar nominated for last year's The Lost Daughter), trying to cut ties with her husband. Things start bad and get worse, ending in a death that haunts the rest of the film. This lingering dread proves to be the most enthralling when left illusive. When made more blunt, it lessens the impact of what is a largely intriguing experience unlike anything you've ever seen or likely ever will.
The film is built around a vacation as a means of escaping the inescapable, where Harper goes out to spend time in the quiet of the English countryside. She meets the awkward and often alarming Geoffrey, one of many characters played with dastardly zeal by Rory Kinnear, who shows her around the illustrious home she will be staying in. Polite, though eager to be alone, Harper disentangles herself from the man to spend most of her time going on walks or talking on video calls with her sister. These moments of serenity are what she desires most, though we soon see how tenuous they are. The video call glitches to glimpses of her sister screaming. Walks turn into pursuits as a figure who emits a terrifying, animalistic cry begins stalking her through the woods.
All of this is writer/director Alex Garland's way of shifting away from the aspects of science fiction that dominate his prior films — Ex Machina and Annihilation — to more firmly plant himself in horror. While you can feel his patience and command of tension still very much present, Men is an entirely different beast for the director. Most of its time is spent with Harper on her own, where Buckley captures the feeling of devastating loss and an aching desire for healing. It is a performance that rivals her outstanding work in films like Beast and I'm Thinking of Ending Things, both of which would make for great double features with this newest creation.
The most praiseworthy aspects are the manner in which Garland creates arresting visuals that get under your skin. From a familiar wound in all its gory viscera to the brief respite of a glimpse of the infinite universe, it is visual storytelling at its most striking. Even when Buckley is left with few lines in these scenes, her silence doesn't mean she isn't speaking volumes about the pain her character is carrying. In fact, much of the film would have been better served had its thematic meaning not been made so explicit through dialogue. This becomes unnecessarily distracting towards the end of the film, as it feels as though Garland lost confidence in letting the horror-as-metaphor fully speak for itself. The manner in which he lays everything out robs it of its full resonance.
This makes Men his most flawed directorial effort, though even a lesser Garland film is still something to behold. He finds a bizarre sense of beauty amid the brutality, making the entire experience a unique, unnerving one. There's a subtle way Garland crafts frights around otherwise normal moments that have something just a little bit off, until it all leaps fully into body horror. It is rather disquieting in a manner that is both sinister and sublime without losing sight of Harper at the center of it all. It will likely alienate those who want a more straightforward horror film, though it is refreshing to see Garland not compromise in the slightest. In its final laying bare of a most significant revelation, it finds an uneasy brilliance in stripping away any previous misdirects to reveal fear all too close to home. ♦MEN