Alex Garland is one of our most stylish writer-directors and in Men he has created a daft and disturbing battle of the sexes fantasy, the fever dream of a trauma victim. This very English feminist fairy-tale looks gorgeous and has a soundscape that grabs you from the start. It certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But for fans of folk horror, Angela Carter and David Cronenberg Men is a compelling and rewarding watch.
Garland expertly sets the scene, using a beguiling folk song from 1970 (Love Song by Lesley Duncan) as accompaniment to Jessie Buckley’s Harper as she drives from London to the Gloucestershire countryside. We see flashbacks to a man falling past a window and drifting dandelion seeds in a field. The sound of pouring rain in the song mirrors the weather on the road as the singer asks ‘Are your eyes really seeing?’
Harper arrives at her village destination, a picturesque 15th century manor house, where she picks an apple from a tree in the front garden and takes a bite. “Scrumping, eh?” booms bluff landlord Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), “mustn’t do that! Forbidden fruit.”
Harper has booked a two-week stay here to try to recover from the violent death of her husband. At first she enjoys the beauty of the lush green fields and bluebell woods but this idyll is quickly ruined by the appearance of a naked man. In Men there’s always some bloke popping up to spoil things for her and most of them are played by Rory Kinnear in Kind Hearts & Coronets mode: a policeman, pub local, vicar, creepy kid and the well-hung Green Man. All are to some extent sexist, abusive and threatening.
Seemingly under siege from the dark forces of rural masculinity Harper plots her escape but is forced to do battle with increasingly disturbing assaults on her life. The finale of Men is a jaw-dropping tour-de-force of body horror, like Cronenberg’s The Brood or Carpenter’s The Thing taken to a demented new level.
What’s it all about? What is Garland trying to say here? That all men are bastards? That violence begets violence (Larkin’s ‘man passes misery on to man’)? Or that men only want to be loved, really, but just can’t quite make women understand where they’re coming from: that there’s something primal in the way.
Or none of the above. It doesn’t really matter because Men is carried by its’ strengths: excellent performances from the two leads and stunning audio-visuals. The tunnel scene, in which Harper creates a 3-part harmony with her own echo is spine-chillingly effective. Who knows where it could have gone if some dodgy bloke hadn’t turned up? Bloody men!
Like Garland’s stylishly brilliant sci-fi series Devs, it showcases a restless intelligence and curiosity, a flair for creating memorable scenes and choosing music to go with them. The blissful ‘Garden of Eden’ scene in Devs, soundtracked by Guinevere by Crosby, Stills & Nash, feels like a companion piece to the opening of Men. Both songs are inspired choices and if, like me, you had never heard them before, you’re in for a treat. Thank you, Alex Garland!
Lesley Duncan: Love Song
Guinnevere by Crosby, Stills & Nash