Alex Garland’s “Men” disguises itself as an elegant country house horror – and becomes a surreal nightmare.
Genre theories are for bad critics. Everyone knows how to spot a western, a gothic horror piece, or a psychological thriller—even if resourceful screenplays often carefully camouflage their rules. So what’s so interesting about finding a good genre film? Isn’t it much more about the unique that makes you forget all conventions?
Horror films in particular are currently experiencing a revival in so-called art-house cinema, because the genre likes to stroll in through the back door. “Titane” is inseparable from David Cronenberg’s “Body Horror,” and “Midsommar,” in which unsuspecting students fall into the clutches of a cult community, also a cousin of the “Hostel” series.
But it’s no longer about fulfilling the expectations of a genre. As in the retro style of pop music, filmmakers tend to cite a particular tradition that they hold dear. They demonstrate virtuosity and versatility and give their themes a special timbre. In the worst case, they also lure notorious scaredy-cats into horror cinema – hopefully not alone.
Alex Garland’s new film Men embraces us like a neat slice of British country horror – like Jack Clayton’s The Castle of Secrets (1961). Jessie Buckley plays Harper, a young woman who has rented a “dream cottage” deep in the English countryside – where the meadows are so much greener than on the continent. A traumatic experience is hinted at right after the titles: in slow motion we see her husband falling to his death. Short flashbacks later make it clear that there was an argument beforehand, that he hit her and that she wanted a divorce.
So now an escape to the hopefully salutary country idyll. A quirky landlord (Rory Kinnear) is waiting with the powerful key she’s unlikely to need. Or maybe yes? However, as the guardian of this paradise, he takes his job seriously enough to warn her about the fruit of the apple tree. But then she bit into it.
Writer and filmmaker Alex Garland loves false paradises. At the age of 26 he published his first novel, The Beach, which was later adapted into a film by Danny Boyle and starring Leonardo DiCaprio. His screenplay for “Ex Machina” received an Oscar nomination: a dreamlike country estate proves to be a breeding ground for artificial intelligence. The studied art historian likes it baroque, a little like his compatriot Peter Greenaway. Only at second glance do his idylls reveal their abysses, the still lifes the worm infestation.
In the most beautiful scene, Harper hikes along a disused railway line. A tunnel’s black hole pierces through the dense greenery, drawing them in like the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. She calls in and gets a nice but oddly polyphonic echo. The a cappella duet with herself comes to an abrupt end when she notices a figure on the other end who suddenly seems to be running towards her.
Male assaults will soon be ubiquitous. A naked man (also played by Rory Kinnear) appears in her garden and just barely gets locked out. A spooky boy wears a mask and calls her a “bitch”. A policeman makes little move to take the threat posed by the naked man seriously, and a pub owner and his regular customers are hardly friendlier. The fact that they are all also played by Kinnear adds to the spooky atmosphere. Not to forget the priest who puts his hand on her knee – and blames her for the death of her husband.
The curious multiple cast Kinnears is a special trick – and also a beautiful British cinema tradition; Alec Guinness played eight roles in Nobility Obliged. If you think the naked thing is delusional, you’re surprised that anyone besides Harper sees it. But is it anyone else? In the surreal finale, one expression of horrid masculinity gives birth to the next.
And what promised to be a decent country house horror film is literally bathing in the digital kitchen of effects. What began as a subtle psychogram reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Hour of the Wolf” and Roman Polanski’s “Disgust” ends in the pseudo-feminist symbolism of Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” – as an androphobic fantasy.
This is more than strange, but also impressive. One never ceases to amaze at the acting qualities, particularly with Jessie Buckley, who lends amazing emotional believability to even the crudest episodes. And you’re amazed at the sheer effort – right down to the commitment of none other than Elton John for the credits song.
Whatever you bought a ticket for here, what genre expectations might have been behind it – you can’t complain. You might get something different, but by no means too little.
Men – What seeks you will find you . UK 2022. Directed by Alex Garland. 100 minutes.