Jessie Buckley Wanders Into the Church of Logic, Sin & Love
DIRECTED BY ALEX GARLAND/2022
A woman alone but not alone has long been the stuff of horror. In recent decades, the notion that said woman will not only persevere but gird up and overcome has become as much of an accompanying expectation. Call it a right subversion within a genre that thrives in the realm of depicted subversion… as familiar as the tropes can be. Expectations, though, must be subverted for the horror form to flourish. Call it warped Darwinism. Or better yet, call it adaptation.
Writer-turned-filmmaker Alex Garland has clearly been thinking about all of this. With his bold science fiction outings Ex Machina (2014) and Annihilation (2018), he intrepidly told tales of female adaptation amid overarching, overpowering natures. Garland’s films wield a carefully realized lucidity, a transportive element to somewhere we don’t want to be. Whether it’s Oscar Isaac’s lush compound in the former film or the daunting otherworldly “shimmer” of the former, Garland’s protagonists are always ultimately met with monumental and unique challenge. Morally and internally; physically and externally.
Garland’s third film, simply titled Men, cultivates all of this, immediately resulting in what we can now confidently look upon as an emerging personal canon. (Who says auteurism is dead??) Although Men comes down squarely in the realm of horror (body horror, to be more exact), the director’s themes, interests, styles, and tempos are becoming excitingly apparent. With Men, Garland takes his boldest swings yet within these areas.
Also apparent, though, is Garland’s willingness to execute the necessary subversions within his own chosen arenas. Men, while fully his own, is far and away its own thing. For all its outward-facing tranquility, beneath the surface lays an underbelly of primal toxicity, both ingrained and agreed upon.
Or does it? Meet Harper Marlowe, a high-strung woman simply looking for a respite. Her story starts traumatically at her urban home as we witness through her eyes the abrupt end of her marriage. We come to learn that the union had been an abusive one, with her sticking it out as the victim. All ropes, however, have their ends- and Harper had arrived at hers.
Jessie Buckley gives a fully formed portrayal of Harper, devoid of all glamour and of any sex. Her husband’s bizarre death (witnessed early on) furthers her descent into mental unease, depicted by Garlard with a fierce dousing of reddish-orange aura. She soon books a long-term retreat for herself, all alone in the cozy English countryside. Slowly and ever more eerily, she comes to realize that the recharging she seeks isn’t going to happen. The problem, we all come to understand, is the men. From the groundskeeper to the local policeman to the patronizing clergyman to the hostile youth to the inert naked man lurking on the horizon- all are dismissive at best and condescending at worst. And they’re all Rory Kinnear.
Although Men presents as a minor work (as some have incorrectly dubbed it) and almost a side project for all involved, it’s rather subtly a visual effects-driven piece. When we first meet Rory Kinnear’s groundskeeper, he seems friendly enough… but a little “off”. As the man’s tour of the rental property goes on and on, the question might occur: has such a toothy smile ever been so empty? Harper’s stay becomes more and more unnerving, particularly as the creepy silent naked man takes to trying to break into the house. Even the token female cop who arrives later (Sarah Twomey) doesn’t seem to take this entirely seriously. It’s possible to watch the whole of Menand not realize that most every male in the village is indeed variations on Kinnear. It’s another unannounced flourish that lends an uncanny tension to the whole thing.
The twisted genius of this film is that we can never really know if Harper is being gaslit by the entire world, or if it’s all in her traumatized mind. And that is genuinely scary. In a world where everything can be Googled at a moment’s notice, but people can’t agree on basic facts, such uncertainty resonates. Garland, all the while, gets at a linage of misogyny and manipulative patriarchal authoritarianism that goes way, way back. Not only is the village itself a quaint throwback to 500 years ago, but there are allusions to ancient times and even the Garden of Eden narrative wherein the Fall of Man is initially all Eve’s fault.
Though not ever overtly, the festering cultural scourge of today’s Reddit assholes are also clearly on Garland’s mind. Contemporary technology is in the mix- as it must be. Being a woman of the now, though, Harper is of course glued to her iPhone. The inherent ability to immediately document disturbing occurrences and FaceTime her best friend Riley (Gayle Rankin) who’s back home do precious little to improve her situation.
None of the men in the village seem to take any of her reports very seriously (despite concerned lip service), and Riley is too far away to be much more than distant moral support. To be sure, this is the stuff of Women’s Studies courses for the next thirty years- providing the instructors aren’t averse to symbolism over traditional narrative and a few never-unseeable very unsettling moments.
In Men’s atonal soundscape and obliquely heady approach, one is reminded of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and its pontifications on the way of nature versus the way of grace. There’s not much “way of grace” modeled here, though there’s increasingly overt consideration of the brutal, Darwinian “way of nature”. This becomes all the more complicated when a cyclical element of body horror kicks in, a strong metaphor that is unnatural to its core- and will not be further elaborated upon here. It must be seen. Men must be seen.
In time, in order to thrive again, Alex Garland will need to upend his own recognizable canon. One has no doubt that he will have no trouble doing so, even as such subversions within the individual stories have been his creative bread and butter. When this occurs, it should not be of some automatic grotesque cycle. It should be graceful. Graceful, but quite likely uneasy. We now have an idea what to expect from this solidly emerging talent. Perhaps.
In the meantime, do not underestimate the power of Men. It is a truly extraordinary and unforgettable experience. It’s no date movie, but do not approach it alone if you can help it. This is real. This is now. This is a freak show baby, anyhow.