‘Men’ turns everyday encounters into sheer terror

Alex Garland turns his lens on male toxicity in this unnerving horror movie

Brad Keefe
"Men"

The term “visionary” is often thrown at filmmakers undeservedly, but in the case of Alex Garland, I don’t know what else you could call him.

His directorial debut, “Ex Machina,” was a prescient look at advanced artificial intelligence and man playing God. It was also my top film of 2015. He followed that up with “Annihilation,” a surrealist look at a mysterious phenomenon spreading on the Louisiana coast that was almost unbearable to watch at the height of a pandemic.

Garland also created the TV series “Devs” and wrote the screenplay for the definitive reimagination of the zombie genre with “28 Days Later,” among other works.

So, I have to admit I was predisposed to like his latest film, “Men,” which I loved. Not everyone will.

Harper (Jessie Buckley) has recently experienced a personal tragedy and decides to reset with a solo trip to a rented cottage in the English countryside. Harper's introduction to the owner of the home (Rory Kinnear) marks the first in a series of interactions with men in the village that range from uncomfortable to menacing.

As Harper is coping with grief, the isolation of her situation — and the men she encounters — lead to a growing sense of dread that gives way to terror.

“Men” shows Garland shifting away from heady sci-fi into heady horror, and he’s quite good at it. At times, “Men” is happy to lean into traditional horror, complete with jump scares, but it’s at its best when it’s creating a skin-crawling unease rather than being overt.

What Garland and the always fantastic Buckley do here is create palpable horror from the everyday experiences of women. Its dissection of male toxic behavior makes it as pointed on that topic as “Get Out” was in its look at racism.

By its conclusion, “Men” is terrifying, but it builds to it slowly, layering on unrelenting anxiety. It’s a film constructed to make you uncomfortable.

And its male audience should feel uncomfortable. It showcases the most seemingly benign circumstances as a means of showing men what living in a world dominated by male power is like for women. Imagine a world where you almost never completely feel safe. That can be an everyday experience for most women.

Garland also adds a certain pathetic nature to many of these male characters, from the nebbish homeowner who drops bad dad jokes to a vicar who lacks basic empathy.

Buckley continues to establish herself as an actor whose every performance is an event, and she expertly brings us into Harper’s world. Kinnear gives a performance that layers almost every form of male toxicity.

Will men feel seen here? Well, yes, that’s the point.

“Men” also may lose some audiences in its surreal weirdness down the stretch. Garland has worked in this lane before with his willingness to go full “2001” at the end of “Annihilation.” If you were on board for that ride, you might think you know what to expect. You don’t.

I’m being kind of purposely obtuse here because I don’t want to spoil anything. I will say audiences will probably find “Men” very polarizing, and not just because of its themes of male toxicity.

But I’m all-in on Garland’s vision. I came out of “Men” anxious to process it further and ready for a rewatch. In the meantime, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt that my initial jaw-dropping will hold.

“Men”

Now playing in theaters

5 stars out of 5