By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear and Paapa Essiedu
Written and directed by Alex Garland
“It’s a quiet, lovely village in beautiful countryside” is how the rural British setting of MEN is described, and if that isn’t the setup for a horror film… The notion of a protagonist traveling to such a peaceful town to recover from a tragedy is also a fright-film standard, but the way in which MEN builds on that premise is anything but conventional. This is also different territory for writer/director Alex Garland, whose previous genre work, from scripting 28 DAYS LATER to his previous turns at the helm with EX MACHINA and ANNIHILATION, have dealt with science-fictional subjects. MEN begins as paranoia horror, gradually develops into folk horror and eventually creeps into the very definition of body horror, and casts an uncomfortable and unnerving spell throughout.
We know early on that Harper (Jessie Buckley) is taking some alone time at a well-appointed country home due to the death of her husband, though the exact circumstances of his demise are left nebulous at first. The house is certainly pleasant enough, even as the man she’s renting it from, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), is eccentric and overly inquisitive in ways that make Harper and the viewer vaguely uneasy. And while a walk near the premises at first takes Harper into some attractive landscapes, it also leads her to a long, dank tunnel and the first of a couple of sightings of distant, mysterious figures. And it’s not long after that before one of those figures gets a lot closer and violently attempts to invade her space.
Now, a SPOILER ALERT should probably be placed here regarding a key element of MEN, albeit one that will be evident to anyone who watches the trailer. One of the disconcerting things about Jessie’s antagonistic “visitor” is that he looks somewhat like Geoffrey, as both are played by Kinnear. And as the movie goes on, the actor dons different makeup and hair to portray an assortment of other locals, from a priest to a policeman; digital trickery also allows him to appear in a particularly discomfiting role. (It’s an interesting coincidence that this is the third A24 film this year, after X and EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE, to feature an actor playing multiple parts.) It’s a tour de force by Kinnear, with nary a wink in performance or filmmaking to acknowledge his multiplicity; he makes each character distinctive and vivid, even as the common casting continues the statement made by the title.
For Harper has come to stay in a place where the male population represents the full spectrum of the evil that men do, from physical violence to emotional manipulation. There’s a full menu of gaslighting and victim shaming awaiting Harper, tying back to flashbacks we see of the highly troubled relationship between Harper and her husband James (Paapa Essiedu). MEN isn’t a simple or simplistic tract, though; Garland leaves a lot to the audience’s judgment, and poses questions for us to answer based on our own experiences.
Nor does he let the sociopolitical side of the material overwhelm his other, very much achieved goal here, of making one hell of a creepy horror film. Garland maintains a pitch-perfect control of atmosphere and slowly rising tension, dropping unsettling details into Harper’s situation so that it feels natural when paganism begins creeping into the previously reality-grounded scenario. He makes very effective, both concrete and symbolic use of the complementing masculine and feminine mythological figures of The Green Man and the sheela-na-gig, and during the remarkably well-sustained, chilling final act, Garland brings full-blown, visceral body horror to the fore. Even as he’s making us gasp, the grisly details here are also well-thought-out on a conceptual level: One key gruesome gag connects visually to the source of Harper’s real-world trauma.
Buckley, who first impressed in the underseen 2018 psychothriller BEAST, is stirring and sympathetic as Harper makes her way through a living nightmare in which no person, and ultimately not the world itself, can be trusted. Credit the latter to the rich and sinister cinematography by Rob Hardy and Mark Digby’s production design, which gets us to the point where every window behind Harper suggests a threat lurking outside. Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s score uses frequent wordless vocals to increasingly eerie effect, and big kudos are due to makeup designer Nicole Stafford for Kinnear’s various guises and the startling creations by prosthetics designer Tristan Versluis. The concerted efforts of all these men and women have resulted in a film that’s as fascinating as it is frightening.