What happens when déjà vu becomes so commonplace that it is no longer noticeable? Whether it’s uncanny resemblances or repetitive patterns of abuse, many endure unwanted familiarity by numbing all feeling. But a person can only handle so much until they break. Unleashing justifiable fury is the only response to recurrent behavior that grows worse the longer left unchecked. Alex Garland’s grisly yet intelligent Men espouses this belief. His third feature focuses on women’s emotional journey to subvert men’s attempted domination of their thoughts, actions, reactions, body, and even trauma recovery.
Jessie Buckley, a thespian whose talent continues to know no bounds, portrays Harper, a woman haunted by guilt. Hoping that isolation could prove therapeutic, she rents out a countryside cottage in the seemingly innocuous village of Cotson. Yet, right from the start, the locals have a hint of madness in their eyes. However, audiences make immediate note that they all share an identical face, a creepy characteristic that Harper either doesn’t notice or chooses to ignore.
Her first encounter is with the estate’s owner, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear). He is amicable if slightly awkward, dispensing humor that never lands during the introductory tour. He also drops some subtle background assumptions about Harper and her marital status, but she excuses it as an error on her part during the rental application. Still, he appears “harmless” enough, but as we soon come to learn, no man — regardless if they are a child, vagrant, vicar, law enforcer, or gaffer — proves entirely innocent.
Kinnear and Buckley share extraordinary screen chemistry, their interactions cooly combative at first before building to a clashing crescendo that has no “body horror” equal. Garland directs his actors to carry the bulk of the action, even after gory visuals make their punishing splash. Scenes are never weighed down by exposition, and silences become an invisible, unnerving jump-scare. Being alone with one’s thoughts can be a terrifying experience, but when magnified by a surrounding environment posing as comfort (while being anything but), escape becomes impossible.
Buckley’s performance emphasizes this feeling of bombardment, the men of indistinguishable faces acting as an enemy onslaught that denies reprieve. Men is one of the most visceral horror films of late because it is unflinching in its depiction of men who, simply put, never stop men-ing. Gaslighting, domestic abuse, stalking, ultimatums, “man-splaining,” hypocrisy, religious invocation as a way to elevate the male sex while demeaning the opposite — almost every emotional and physical cruelty men have enacted upon women for centuries is depicted to unnerving effect. The obvious element keeping Garland’s latest from a perfect score is the creative involvement of women themselves. The script is missing the most crucial behind-the-scenes perspective, whose participation could have better translated into a finale that can be credibly argued as spectacle over substance.
So about that unshakeable ending…let’s unpack! First, we have to roll back the tape and address Harper’s decision to seek solace. Flashbacks reveal that her late-husband James (Paapa Essiedu) seemingly commits suicide in front of Harper’s eyes, breaking into the flat above their own and plummeting to his death. Moments prior, the couple have a massive argument, whereby Harper resolves to file for divorce after much consideration. It’s clear from James’ outbursts that he does not handle losing control well. He threatens her with suicide unless she stays with him, an act of cruel emotional manipulation that no one should experience.
In James’ idyllic world, only his love for her matters; her feelings are of little consequence or care. Watching Harper, you know the break-up is not an easy decision. Her voice trembles, fearing his reaction to the announcement. To leave someone is no easy task, especially if said person has a history of demonstrating abuse when rejected. For standing her ground, Harper receives a brutal punch to the face. This is the final straw, leading her to lock James out of the apartment and, hopefully, out of her life. Yet, once again, James must have the final say. Whether accidental or intentional, his fall is prompted by a refusal to respect a woman’s decision.
The gruesome final image of James cannot be erased, tormenting and following Harper to the cottage until it manifests in a new attacker: Geoffrey and his many forms. At Men’s climax, we see Geoffrey share the same bodily injuries as James, suggesting his impalement is a visual scar that continues to wreak havoc on Harper’s psyche. Whether Geoffrey is a singular demon or a representation of James is up for debate. However, Geoffrey’s final form is a nude James pleading for her love (which, despite the torture endured, Harper thankfully refuses).
So who is Geoffrey? He is obviously a corporeal entity since Harper’s friend Riley (Gayle Rankin) finds trails of his blood leading up the house upon arrival. Geoffrey has the ability to appear on the face of everyone in town except on one occasion. The way we know the townsfolk are not figments of Harper’s imagination is because of the appearance of a female police officer (Sarah Twomey). This sole face doesn’t resemble Geoffrey.
One noteworthy moment that stands out is Harper underplaying “kid Geoffrey” cursing at her, recounting how she ran into young boys in London who behaved similarly. This prompts a nagging question: could all these current encounters with several men and a child actually represent past ones? It is possible Harper sought isolation because the men back home doubled down on guilting her about James’ death, just like the lecherous vicar does in Cotson. Furthermore, the naked stalker in the woods parallels the haunting presence of James, who, even in death, continues to have a pulse in Harper’s mind.
Ultimately, Men demonstrates how much of an obstacle it is for women to recover from personal trauma since society constantly forces them to contend with mens’ feelings first. Watching Geoffrey give birth upon birth of physically wounded versions of himself to gain Harper’s sympathy is the perfect metaphor for men superseding their needs above a woman’s. Although its shock factor tends to stand out more than the substantive impression it hopes to land, Garland’s latest sparks the most thematic dissection of a horror film since Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. In the end, it’s better to be an unforgettable mess than a pristine bore.