Men, the latest from writer/director Alex Garland, opens with unfathomable horror: As a husband falls to his death, he passes by the window of his apartment and momentarily locks eyes with his wife.
This is the crucial moment Garland anchors his story around, peppering the rest of his movie with scenes leading up to this moment and a few following. The wife, Harper (Jessie Buckley), wants a divorce. The husband, James (Paapa Essiedu), wants her love. He’ll jump if he doesn’t get it. He’ll also strike her if she doesn’t acquiesce. There’s more, but not much. That this is all Garland gives the audience is one of the sticking points of Men.
Following James’ death, Harper flees London for the English countryside, renting what can only be described as the most idyllic English cottage imaginable. It’s 500 years old, older than Shakespeare, but with all the modern amenities you could want. The kitchen alone is the stuff house hunters would kill for. Oh, and the “older than Shakespeare” comment isn’t exactly fodder. Agamemnon and Odysseus get name drops in the third act. Indications of follows are far from modern? Sort of.
The house is lovely, but the caretaker is not. He is Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), and he means well but gives off the aroma of a creep and a judgmental one at that. He’s also ubiquitous. In addition to Geoffrey, Kinnear plays the town vicar, the local police officer, the publican, a couple of barflies, a spoiled brat, and a naked man living in the forest.
Why Kinnear plays all the men in this small town is the business of the movie. That he does creates an almost unbearable tension for two-thirds of Men. Then the spell breaks, and the tone Garland works so hard to build crumples to the floor.
Kinnear is good in the various roles, though I’m not sure I buy the execution. His presence feels like a flip on the misogynistic phrase: There is only one woman in the world. One woman, with many faces. I’ve come across that line—or at least it’s thinking—in several books and movies, but most memorably in The Last Temptation of Christ, where a little girl lays it on Jesus as a balm to move past the death of a loved one to another’s bed. Oh, and the little girl who speaks the “many faces” line, she’s no ordinary little girl but Satan.
It’s worth mentioning that though we see Kinnear in the faces of every man in this town, Harper does not. Is Kinnear’s omnipresence her hallucination or ours? I have a guess as to what it all means, but that could just be a feeble attempt to apply rationale to the images Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy put on screen. Might they be clues or a red herring? Men is a head-scratcher, no doubt: a stunning, creepy, tense, hallucinatory head-scratcher with a few banal things on its mind.
Written and directed by Alex Garland
Produced by Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich
Starring: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu, Gayle Rankin, Sarah Twomey
A24, Rated R, Running time 100 minutes, Opens May 20, 2022.
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