Harper (Jessie Buckley) rents an isolated country house so that she can spend some time alone to process the sense of guilt she is feeling after the suicide of her husband, who she was in the middle of divorcing when he fell/jumped from a balcony to his death.
After meeting the nice-but-dim landlord Geoffrey, Harper finds herself encountering a series of odd males (all played well by the same actor, Rory Kinnear), who range from a menacing, naked man in the local woods, a creepy kid that wants to play hide & seek, and a weird local vicar. Events escalate, with Harper compelled to stab an intruder’s arm that pushes through the mail slot of her door, after which she helplessly watches as the intruder slowly withdraws his arm, causing the transfixed blade to gorily slice his forearm and hand in two. This distinctive wound mirrors an injury suffered by her dead husband (seen in one of many flashbacks), and soon Harper is hassled by the various male characters again, who all now have this same, unpleasant bisected arm injury. From here matters become much, much more strange and grotesque…
MEN, written and directed by Alex Garland, would seem to be a psychological horror story, detailing the mental breakdown of the guilt-ridden protagonist, yet much of what happens is definitely not in the heroine’s mind, as there really is a naked stalker who is arrested by the local police, and Harper’s friend, at the end of the movie, does see actual blood-smears in the doorway and also walks past the wrecked Ford we saw a character crash the previous night. So, is Garland suggesting these incidents, including an outlandish body-horror tour de force sequence, can be regarded as actually having really happened?
The film is peppered with folk horror elements: there’s a Green Man sculpture on the nearby church’s font, the naked stalker starts to cut himself and insert leaves into his face, and he finally appears as a full-on Green Man. When Harper is menaced by the vicar in her home, she asks him ‘what’ he is, and he replies that he’s ‘a swan’, a reference to the Greek myth ‘Leda and the Swan’, where Zeus, in the shape of a swan, seduces/rapes Leda. So could Garland be inferring that some kind of local pagan deity has latched onto Harper and is pursuing her in a series of masculine guises, so all of the batshit-crazy stuff we witness during the finale is ‘real’?
It’s hard to glean exactly what message Garland is trying to get across, because he wilfully keeps things obscure and unexplained, whilst also showering the film with symbolism (apples = Garden of Eden), musings on different kinds of toxic masculinity (men blaming women for the sexual urges they are feeling, men hitting women, men trying to guilt-trip women, etc), shots of a dead, eyeless deer, and the aforementioned body-horror imagery that sees the Green Man trigger a prolonged, bizarre ‘birthing’ sequence, involving adult males manifesting distended bellies and vaginas, from which other males are born.
MEN leaves too many questions unanswered: why doesn’t Harper notice that every male in the village has pretty much the same face? If her submerged guilt surrounding her husband’s death is so profound, why isn’t it his face she sees everywhere, rather than Kinnear’s visage?
Criticisms aside, this initially slow-burn film is unique, is well-acted, gorgeous to look at and boasts a wonderful, striking soundtrack that utilises a choir to infuse the proceedings with an unsettling vibe.
The movie’s bucolic English setting, with its shots of country churches and hints of some ancient presence, gives MEN the veneer of a M.R. James story in places, and some of Kinnear’s makeups recall the humorously grotesque visuals of the comedy-horror sitcom THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN, though these influences are incidental and take a backseat to Garland’s own style of storytelling.
MEN, ultimately, is a muddled-yet-memorable combination of British folk horror and psychological drama, with musings on male toxicity added to the mix.