Directed by Alex Garland. Starring Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear.
Horror, UK, 100 minutes, certificate 15.
Released in in cinemas in the UK June 1st by Entertainment Film Distributors.
Struggling with guilt after the apparent suicide of her estranged husband, Harper retreats to the small remote village of Coxton for some well-deserved rest and relaxation. Despite the idyllic surrounding countryside and palatial vintage guest house, Harper soon runs into an ominous figure, a dishevelled naked mute man, who later follows her home. Finding no help or sympathy from the village locals, mostly men who all appear to be very similar in appearance, this self-imposed getaway soon becomes something all else together as Harper encounters a far more sinister, stranger aspect of the country that will not relent in terrorising her.
MEN is a strange film on multiple levels. To see a film like this on mainstream release is very surprising. Garland’s approach to the premise takes some wild risks, some successful, some not so much. Anyone expecting a straight up slice of socially minded horror or folk horror instead gets an offbeat mixture of both and then ends up with something far more surreal and puzzling. Bold directorial choices, mainly the decision to have Rory Kinnear play all the men in the village, pay off in ways on a thematic level more successfully than a more basic storytelling one that would connect more with a mainstream audience. What a mainstream audience will make of this, especially its bizarre and grotesque climax, whilst the latest Marvel blockbuster spools out in the next screen over is anyone’s guess.
Garland’s refusal to take a clear-cut approach here is commendable, giving us a film that no matter what you think of it is especially striking. That strange final act, coupled with its puzzling coda, will no doubt prove to be a breaking point for many of its audience while others may revel in its allegorical storytelling. What does undeniably work here is the acting of both Buckley and Kinnear in multiple roles. Whether it is the patronising toff who rents out the property Harper retreats to, a foul-mouthed schoolboy, a creepily opinionated minister or the mysterious naked man lurking around the countryside, Kinnear’s varied and skilled performances have a way of getting under the viewers skin. The more visceral imagery committed by and upon him will no doubt linger in the viewers memory longer than the films sometimes all too obvious symbolism.
As Harper, Jessie Buckley continues to prove her skill as a leading actor. Her character successfully avoids the victimised female character trope with a nuanced performance that swings between rage and guilt at her recent past and a seething, growing sense of anger at her present situation. This character work, from both script and actor, stops the film from becoming a polemical, simplistic screed. However, there are elements that seem underdeveloped. The folk horror aspects seem at times tacked on, the allusions made to the role that nature and the countryside are somehow at play are kept maddeningly vague and then swept seemingly aside in favour of body horror that descends into an obvious metaphor for toxic masculinity.
MEN is a film that succeeds on some levels and not so much on others. Its strange slippery nature however makes it worth a watch, marking it out as something quite singular in today’s mainstream cinematic landscape. Entertaining and maddening in near equal measure, it is always interesting and will no doubt be remembered for these qualities and debated over for some time to come by many.