Men review – Alex Garland’s rural retreat into toxic masculinity | Horror films


Aall men really are the same in this body-horror fairy tale from Alex Garland, the writer-director behind adventurous sci-fi oddities Ex-Machina and Annihilation. The emotional weight lent by Jessie Buckley (who single-handedly saved Iain Reid’s equally surreal flawed 2020 screen adaptation I’m thinking of ending things), it’s a fun, twisted affair – not as deep as she seems to think, perhaps, but with enough squishy metaphorical slime to ensure that her musings on textbook male characteristics are rarely boring, and sometimes deliciously disgusting.

Buckley is Harper, the survivor of an abusive relationship whose partner, James (Paapa Essiedu), tried to trick her into taking responsibility for her own urban self-destruction (“you’ll have to live with this on your conscience”). Today she escaped to green surroundings for a fortnight in ‘the country house of dreams’ – with the emphasis on ‘dreaming’. From the oversaturated palette of Rob Hardy’s cinematography (fields so green they glow, flowers that burst into purple blues) to the gory interiors of chocolate boxes conjured up by production designer Mark Digby and set designer Michelle Day, we’re in a world of big bad wolves (that fireside ax will come in handy) and poison apples. “Forbidden Fruit” Says Rental House Owner Geoffrey, a Toothy Tim Nice-But-Dim Character Who Harper Significantly Describes as “A Very Specific Character type”.

The same could be said of all the men she meets in her rural retreat, the condescending vicar who fiddles with her knee while sarcastically blaming her for her guilt-ridden predicament (“the men do sometimes hit women”) to the local police officer who rolls his eyes when Harper gets upset about being terrorized by a naked stalker. Basically, all of these men are played by a single actor, as Rory Kinnear deftly shifts between identities, variously donning the stereotypical capes of his gender. Imagine a Minimalist One-Man Production by Neil LaBute In the company of menbut with a stickier gloop.

The fact that Harper never acknowledges the similarities between these male characters signals this is a device — a dramatic ploy that some audiences might not even notice at first, but one that makes perfect emotional sense. I remembered the animated oddity of Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson Anomalised, in which the central character is beset by “Fregoli’s illusion”: that everyone (except the titular Lisa) is the same person – endowed with the same puppet face and voiced by the same actor, Tom Noonan. Here, the uniformity of the male characters and their traits (selfish, controlling, condescending, predatory) is presented as both a universal truth and a personal reaction. It’s the world as seen through Harper’s eyes, shaped by her experiences and memories – fantastical, perhaps, but still cradling an essential truth.

There is a strong thread of Wicker Man-folk horror style in MenVisions of the Green Man screaming from a church’s baptismal font and rampaging through fields and gardens, and masked children whose childish taunts are both silly and frightening. By some strange (entirely accidental, but thematically serendipitous) coincidence, there are also odd echoes of John Wyndham’s current female-centric Sky TV adaptation. Midwich Cuckoo Clockswith the supernaturally isolated village in which Harper finds herself trapped resembling a cross between Edgar Wright’s Midwich, Summerisle and Sandford Warm fuzz.

And then there is the straw dogs-third-act inflected siege, in which Garland throws caution to the wind and dives deep into the plasma pool of Cronenbergian horror, as regurgitated masculinity births itself in an orgy of physical mutation. It’s a fun finale that’s directly reminiscent of Brian Yuzna’s spectacular body maneuvers. Companyor, perhaps more pertinently, Neil Jordan’s lupine transformations The company of wolvesadapted by co-writer Angela Carter from her own short story collection The Bloody Room.

A choral score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow beautifully bridges the gap between the film’s modern British pastoral setting and timeless Euro-Gothic thrills, with human voices and unearthly noises dancing around earthly soundscapes that seem to be both internal and external – real and imaginary. It may not be subtle, but it’s endearing and off-balance, and serves as a timely reminder that the plastic realities of fantasy and horror remain a hearty primal soup for the cinema of ideas.


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