Jessie Buckley navigates a nightmare of toxic masculinity
Starring Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear
Directed by Alex Garland
How to Watch: In theaters May 20, 2022
The so-called “battle of the sexes” takes a weird, wild turn in this smart, savage broadside about the abhorrent behaviors of men.
In this horrifically hallucinatory tale, a grieving young woman retreats to the English countryside after witnessing a terrible incident—she watches her husband plummet to his death from the top of their urban London high rise.
Harper (Jessie Buckley) is haunted by the memory of her husband hurtling to the ground, but also by her vivid recall of him screaming that life wasn’t worth living without her. He threatened to kill himself if she went through on her plans to divorce him.
Then she did, and he did. Was his death a suicide, an accident or a departing flourish of frustration about not getting what he wanted? And was Harper somehow responsible?
The troubled widow heads out of town to a quaint countryside village to clear her head. Maybe a week alone in a sprawling rental manor, far away from the city and its reminders of the trauma she’s just experienced, will help settle her jangled nerves.
But, oh, is she ever wrong.
Even though she’s alone in the manse, Harper is never truly alone, and her trauma continues to deepen, intruding into her consciousness with jarring flashbacks. Every man she encounters in the village unsettles her in some way, reconnecting her with the emotional shock of her husband’s violent death.
There’s the overly chatty, socially clumsy owner of the manor; then a scarred, naked man, who follows Harper home from a walk in the woods, appearing to stalk her. There’s a bratty, foul-mouthed teen; a lecherous vicar; a thug from the pub; and a boorish, smugly dismissive constable.
And the men all look the same; for one thing, they’re all played, in a brilliant—and, in one case, CGI-enhanced—multi-character performance by Rory Kinnear (who’ll be recognizable to James Bond fans for his recurring franchise role as the head of MI6). Is the movie suggesting that all men are really, down deep, just the same? That no matter how any man looks, behaves or appears, it’s only a superficial coating, a thin disguise over who he really is? Is Men saying that lust, the drive to procreate and an egotistic need to dominate are the hard-wired motivators of any man…or every man?
The woods around Harper’s manor are creepy. The village is creepy. The absence of other women is creepy; except for a lone policewoman, there aren’t any other females around, anywhere. And the men are all creepy, existing on a spectrum of micro-aggressions that will soon become major aggressions, and creating a rising tide of oppressive, noxious masculinity that seems to permeate the very air that Harper inhales.
They invade the sanctity of her solitude, figuratively and then literally. They oppress her with their demanding haughtiness, insult her with their crude comments and threaten her with their primal yearnings. They intensify her crippling sense of guilt and deepen her psychic wounds. The teen, hiding behind a plastic trick-or-treat mask of Marilyn Monroe, insists to a disturbed Harper that she join him in playing a schoolyard game. The house owner chides her for eating an apple (“forbidden fruit”) off a tree in the yard. The vicar, who piously notes Harper’s culpability in her husband’s death, attempts to rape her.
It’s no wonder that her friend back in London (Gayle Rankin, who played the wrestler Sheila the She-Wolf on TV’s Glow) advises Harper on a FaceTime call that the only way to deal with these guys is take an axe from the woodpile and, well, hit ‘em where it hurts. Cut off the problem at its root, so to speak.
Buckley, the Irish actress most recently in The Lost Daughter, seems to relish playing characters who live beyond the surface of the mainstream, or inhabit its enigmatic, unfathomable underside—like the murderous nurse Odetta Mayflower in TV’s most recent season of Fargo, or the unnamed woman navigating the freakish, reality-shifting scenario of I’m Thinking of Ending Things. As Harper, she pilots a course teetering on madness, awash in wonder, awe and bewilderment…and ultimately, spiraling into a living nightmare.
Men is the third feature film from British director Alex Garland, whose two previous movies—Ex Machina and Annihilation—were trippy sci-fi hybrids exploring the terrors in the breached boundaries of the known and the unknowable.
And there’s certainly a lot of unknowable spread throughout this film, interwoven with elements of ancient folklore, religious allegory and dreamlike symbolism—and that’s before things erupt in a wild, galloping grand finale of all-out horror and the undercurrent of masculine menace becomes a flood of jaw-dropping WTFs. Men may be several things, but as Harper runs an obstacle course of toxic masculinity, it becomes a bizarro indictment of abhorrent behaviors, tapping into an ancient vein that’s been coursing through civilization since time began.
The naked bloke turns into an embodiment of the Green Man, a mythological figure whose representations appear around the world, representing nature’s eternal cycles of life, death and rebirth. (And ain’t it just like a man, to try to take credit for the work of “Mother” Nature?) When Harper inflicts a grievous wound on one of the men, the same wound appears on all of them. (You’ll never look at a front-door mail slot, or a butcher knife, the same way.) And finally, in a slimy, gross-out sequence during which the men suddenly have the, ahem, genitalia of women, they “birth,” well…different iterations of themselves. And the film’s central premise becomes clear: The unchanging, ever-repeating nature of men is to perpetuate their masculinity, to continually assert themselves in violent, assaultive ways, and to forever feel a pathetic need to control women, minimalize their roles and usurp them.
Maybe some viewers will be turned off by the movie’s sudden shift into goop and gore. Maybe you’ll interpret it all as a truly feminist horror fable. Maybe you’ll remember the 1990s best-seller, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, about the fundamental psychological differences between the genders. Maybe you’ll recognize the Elton John ballad, “Love Song,” which plays over both the beginning and the end of the movie. “Love is the opening door,” he sings. “Love is what we came here for.”
Yeah, love may open the door. But if you’re on the other side, and especially if you’re a woman in the English countryside, in a creepy village where all the guys embody manhood’s worst, most loathsome attributes, it’s also probably a good idea to have a knife handy—or an axe.