Failed Experiment In Psychological Horror

Alex Garland is an author turned writer (author of The Beachscreenwriter of Sunshine, 28 Days Laterand Dredd) turned director of brainy-yet-visceral sci-fi like Ex Machina and Annihilation. In his latest, Mena horror-sci-fi whatsit starring Jessie Buckley opening this weekend, Garland’s talent is as palpable as ever, but his inspiration feels a little thin.

Buckley, who has a nice career going after memorable roles in Taboo, Chernobyl, Fargo, I’m Thinking Of Ending Thingsand The Lost Daughter (the latter earning her BAFTA and Oscar nominations), plays Harper, a recent widow who has rented a house in the English countryside to try to forget her troubles back in London. Those troubles, we learn through a series of flashbacks, mostly involve her recently deceased ex, who seems to have been emotionally and physically abusive.

So now Harper’s renting a 300-year-old country manor from Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), a chipper, snaggletoothed estatesman who’s so English he seems like he might spontaneously burst into a newspaper full of fish and chips at any moment. Geoffrey seems nice enough, though suspiciously over-attentive, the kind of guy who’s clearly interested in Harper and pleasant on the surface, but also awkward and fumbling, oblivious to personal boundaries enough that she can’t be certain he won’t turn dangerous . MEN, am I right?

Kinnear, who is genetically 175% English according to Ancestry.com, plays this kind of character perfectly and effortlessly, which is probably why Garland has him play multiple iterations of it, The Fatties Fart Two-style. That choice might sound like an odd fit in a sort of psychological horror-ish movie, and it is, but Alex Garland is nothing if not full of bold, offbeat storytelling choices. To some extent, it works — adding to this environment of vague-but-persistent dread, the kind of terror you might wonder whether you’re just imagining. The kind of terror other people would try to convince you was only in your head. A recipe for “gaslighting,” in buzzier words.

In MenGarland has a lot of great little ideas, with brilliant performances and viscerally compelling imagery, but lacks one big idea to tie them all together. He maintains the act masterfully for a while, building beautifully and meticulously Harper’s snow globe of persistent dread. Such that it’s only midway through the second act when he starts having to lay his cards on the table that you realize he doesn’t have much of a hand. It’s mostly movie tricks and empty concepts. That’s a criticism of Men but it’s backhanded praise of Garland, who even in this middling effort accomplishes a lot of things other filmmakers simply couldn’t.

Still, maybe the title should’ve been a clue as to the vagueness of Garland’s purpose here. “Men.” That’s it? Harper is haunted by, like, the demon-ghost of toxic masculinity? In 2022, when roughly the last 27 major releases have all been sold as being “explorations of toxic masculinity” (something you could say about any number of classics, from Goodfellas to Swingers to The Sands Of Iwo Jima and not be wrong) a villain has to be a little more specific than “toxicity” and “gaslighting.” And anyway, didn’t Alex Garland already explore this pretty perfectly in Ex Machina?

What Garland is attempting in Men It is basically a movie with one character, played off a series of vaguely-defined and sort-of-hackneyed concepts. It’s a credit to his skills as a craftsman that he pulled it off for even a minute. Men ends up being a handful of solid scenes and intriguing performances signifying nothing.

‘Men’ is available only in theaters May 20th. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.

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