There’s body horror and then there’s Men, a visceral and challenging movie which will make your intestines dance.
The provocative and daring film Men crescendos in a wild climax that isn’t quite The Human Centipede but it’s also not ‘not’ The Human Centipede.
With a jaw-dropping scene that is visually, emotionally, intellectually and – it must be said – intestinally challenging, Men writer and director Alex Garland has no hesitations about making you feel slightly nauseous.
His works, including films Ex Machina and Annihilation and miniseries Devsare both cerebral and experiential.
They will always evoke a visceral feeling right in your gut, affected by an emotional reaction you don’t see coming while simultaneously trying, sometimes in vain, to logically organize the story in your mind.
Just like that finale in Men, a scene which – without spoiling too much – involves blood, amniotic fluid, body horror and a hell of a lot of squirming. It’s classic Garland.
Men stars the incomparable Jessie Buckley as Harper, a young woman who has hired an idyllic English country village manor for two weeks. Harper recently suffered a tragedy involving her former husband James (Paapa Essiedu) and the holiday is supposed to be Harper’s healing, self-care break.
On her arrival, the house’s owner Geoffrey gives her the tour and he’s an affable, well-meaning but paternalistic toff. Little comments and “jokes” about original sin and Harper’s name puts her off-side. It’s not explicit but the undercurrent of casual sexism is ever-present.
Harper goes for a walk through the surrounding woods and she senses a malevolent presence stalking her. The village vicar professes to help but judges her for her husband’s fate, a bratty schoolboy calls her names and a male police officer diminishes her valid fears.
The quaint country getaway turns into a horror movie as it exploits the terrors women feel on a day-to-day basis, from low-level unease to outright danger. Some scenes trigger the same, all-too-familiar quickening of the pulse that accompanies the sound of heavy footsteps on a poorly lit street.
It effectively showcases that patriarchy and misogyny is everywhere, by having Scottish actor Rory Kinnear (Sky Fall, peterloo) play all the male characters except for Harper’s husband, and tying it back to the Pagan Green Man.
The fact that every man and boy in the village has the same face is never commented on in-universe and you are left wondering for most of the final act whether everything that’s happening to Harper is a living nightmare or just a nightmare.
And yet, Men is probably Garland’s least successful endeavor. The film’s theme of #YesAllMen lacks the nuance to really confront the issue of gendered violence, micro-aggressions and toxic masculinity.
Garland has never been one to take a meek or restrained approach, so it’s easy to understand his choices in Men within his wider oeuvre.
If Garland wants to address the primal, cyclical nature of misogyny, he’s going to resort to that climactic scene, he’s going to be literal in his executions in the same way he was in Annihilation by having Natalie Portman’s character face off against her doppelganger.
But it does feel, even for Garland, a little heavy handed, and as if he missed the opportunity to be as considered in his storytelling as he is ambitious in his cinematic vision.
While Men is flawed and ultimately a little unsatisfying, there’s no denying that it is a singular, bold and stimulating film that challenges you in every way – that’s what Garland does best.
Men is in cinemas now