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film review

Rory Kinnear stars in Men.Courtesy of VVS Films

Men

Written and directed by Alex Garland

Starring Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear

Classification R; 100 minutes

Opens May 20 in theatres

Writer-director Alex Garland gives away part of his game early on in his new film, simply titled Men (as in “ugh, men,” but also “meh-n,” and maybe even “It’s Raining Men”; stick with me).

Vacationing in the English countryside after the violent death of her husband, Harper (Jessie Buckley) is suddenly placed in a terrifying situation. There is a man outside – stark naked, covered in cuts – who is standing in her rental property’s backyard. Harper immediately dials emergency services. “Please explain what is going on,” the voice on the other end of the line asks Harper. It is a plea that will come to serve the audience of Men well for the remaining hour and a half. Please, Alex Garland, explain what is going on.

It is not that every film is required or obligated to provide answers for the questions it raises. God-slash-Thanos knows, ambiguity can be an underutilized concept nowadays. And Garland himself has done head-scratching wonders with abstract artistry before (see Annihilation). But with Men, the British filmmaker is stubbornly needling his audience with a never-ending barrage of pointy-ended questions that he has neither the inclination nor intention of vaguely addressing or even thinking through on his own terms. Men is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, all scrawled in crayon.

It all starts, and arguably ends, with Men’s casting conceit: Every character that Harper encounters on her vacation is played by the same actor, the excellent British hey-it’s-that-guy Rory Kinnear (North Americans might know him best as 007 minder Tanner in the Daniel Craig Bond films). Here, Kinnear is Roger, the odd but friendly type who owns the manor that Harper is renting. But he is also the local vicar, who chastises Harper for playing a role in her husband’s death. He is the gruff police officer who ends up arresting the nude intruder. He is also, naturally, that naked stranger – a character whose gory transformation over the course of the film aims for horrifying but lands on baffling.

Harper never takes note of the many Kinnears in her midst – even when he is playing, with the aid of some perhaps intentionally wobbly CGI, a teenage boy – which might be Garland’s riff on Fregoli delusion (a condition in which a person believes different people are in fact a single person who changes appearance or is disguised). Or it is a subversion of the #MeToo retort #NotAllMen. But this is only one of several supernatural elements in Harper’s midst, as the film continues to pile on ancient Wicker Man-y carvings, ghost-in-the-machine jump-scares and a body-horror climax of Cronenbergian proportions.

In Men, Harper, played by Jessie Buckley, retreats alone to the beautiful English countryside, hoping to have found a place to heal. But someone or something from the surrounding woods appears to be stalking her.Courtesy of VVS Films

It doesn’t matter whether any of it makes sense or not – it doesn’t – but there is a distinct lack of effectiveness to Garland’s work here, too. An expert at burying and then unearthing heavy-duty themes through horror and sci-fi (see his script for 28 Days Later and his directorial work on Ex Machina and television’s Devs), Garland rushes straight for the patriarchy’s jugular in Men’s battle of the sexes, leaving a sloppy, bloody mess in his wake.

By the time that Harper has a climactic face off against a series of ever-evolving Kinnears – a primordial-muck sequence that suggests the traumatic cycle of domestic abuse, but is executed like Grand Guignol meets Just for Laughs Gags – Garland’s folk-horror exercise becomes an unintentional farce. Good on the always reliable and committed Buckley and Kinnear for having as much fun as they were permitted, but Men is a toxic-bloke joke gone too far.

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