It’s Raining ‘Men’ in Alex Garland’s Terrifying, Hallucinatory Vision of Toxic Masculinity

Some directors are truly great, which can lead to them reaching high for experiments that may not fully succeed, yet retain a particular power. Among current filmmakers, Alex Garland is one of the few who truly merits the label “visionary” because of his marriage of creativity with genuine ideas. In a way he set the bar quite high for himself with his 2014 debut “Ex Machina,” a sci-fi parable about humans playing god with A.I., which doubled as a commentary on gender relations. His work is intelligent with hints of the unnerving. Now he has made “Men,” a semi-horror film about grief and the terror of living in a man’s world, or put more clearly, a world where toxic masculinity still infects every corner.

Her name is Harper (Jessie Buckley) and she has rented a stately manor out in the English countryside. She needs to get away from London after an abusive marriage ended in husband James (Paapa Essiedu) committing suicide. At the manor Harper is greeted by its caretaker, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), a jolly enough chap. While grappling with her trauma, Harper soon realizes there’s something strange about this place. She goes out for a walk in the lush woods and sees a nude man, who looks like Geoffrey, who then appears in the premises of the manor. She calls the police, who also look like Geoffrey. Even the local vicar has the same face, albeit with a different hairstyle, and tries to guilt Harper into blaming herself for James’s death.  It is a town of men, all carrying hidden rages and impulses that come out in forms of passive aggressiveness, sexual taunts and eventually violence. 

The first two acts of “Men” work exceedingly well. Garland is above all a filmmaker of ideas. This is one reason why, with the exception of “Ex Machina,” studios have found it challenging to know how to market his work. 2018’s “Annihilation” was a brilliant sci-fi experience full of dread and wonder, but Paramount tried to sell it as if it were another “Alien” movie. The enveloping FX show “Devs” was a trippy take on the tech industry, but appealed only to specific audiences. Instead of watering down to something more “mainstream,” like a superhero franchise, Garland simply goes further with “Men.” What he does here is almost akin to work by David Lynch, or films like Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother,” in the sense that the driving force is the idea and execution. The movie is essentially all symbols or allegories. No logical or definite answer will be given as to what is going on or how. No one is casting a spell and Harper is never revealed to have walked into another dimension. 

Yet, in a sense she has entered a dimension that is frighteningly real in what the allegory seeks to convey. All the different men played with subdued menace by Kinnear are representations of the very nature of the male species. When the film really works it creates the overwhelming tension of a woman maneuvering around men who feel superior, doubt her and take on condescending tones. When she bumps into the police officer who arrested the naked man at the manor, he smirks at her shock that the stalker has been set free. Her fears are brushed aside, dismissed as hysterics. The “nice guy,” Geoffrey, who heroically looks around the manor when Harper is convinced someone has broken in, openly judges her marital status, or the idea of a woman traveling alone. Garland’s most searing material is in the flashbacks with James, who tries to emotionally bully Harper into staying with him with threats of suicide. 

Individual moments show off Garland’s masterful filmmaking craft, particularly in the first half of the movie before it goes off the rails. A walk through a tunnel in the woods is more terrifying than any recent slasher release, or late night strolls in the manor’s garden where the lights can suddenly go out at the worst possible moment. But then, for the third act, Garland goes so far out with his attempt at saying something about men through the use of bloody, hallucinatory imagery, complete with the year’s wildest birthing sequence, that shock overtakes meaning. You get the sense of what he wants to say, but in the final moments he wants to break his own rules without the proper set-up. It’s a head scratcher that would have actually worked better with a more standard, horror finale. But it cannot be denied that what Garland presents visually will be hard to forget. 

As an imperfect film, “Men” is still a memorable statement featuring the kind of experimental approach few directors would even dare in these times when franchises are dominant. It’s up there with recent titles like “The Lighthouse,” where you’re grateful someone is still willing to try something crazy. When it truly works is when Garland manages to make our skin crawl not with spooks, but with the mirror reflection of how men can be. There has been much cultural reckoning over the last few years and “Men,” in its own fractured way, tries to address that through striking images. One could also argue that it would be even more powerful if it were material formed and directed by a female director. Still, Garland fills the screen with behavior translated into terror that is all too painfully real.

Men” releases May 20 in select theaters.