By: Kayla Caldwell
Could Alex Gardland’s MEN have possibly come at a better time? A bunch of old, male politicians want to take away our bodily autonomy, mediocre men believe they have the right to body shame Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue models, and Joe Rogan is just out of control. Now, you may be thinking, “Who asked for another film, written and directed by a man, about women’s experiences?” I get it, but stay with me here...
While MEN is definitely a movie where a woman gets tormented, it was made for, well, who the title suggests. In MEN, Harper (Jessie Buckley) books a getaway to the English countryside. There, she meets the owner of the gorgeous, vintage yet refurbished cottage, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear). Kinnear actually plays every male character in the movie, save for Harper’s ex-husband, James (Paapa Essiedu). It’s never acknowledged by Harper as something odd - despite the fact that, at times, the CGI is strikingly strange - suggesting that all of the faces look the same, because it doesn’t matter which man it is. Before you get all worked up about me being a “man-hater,” the risk isn’t necessarily that all men are bad, but that you cannot differentiate who the bad ones are, simply by looking. Therein lies the true risk.
This is something that women know, of course, but is often misunderstood by men as misandry. This effect, most uncomfortably used on the face of a boy named Samuel (Zak Rothera-Oxley), calls to mind the idea of “uncanny valley,” an unsettling feeling experienced when something closely resembles a human in many respects, but is not quite convincingly realistic. However, rather than looking like a mistake, Samuel’s creepy face works perfectly with the unsettling things that come out of his mouth.
MEN is one of a handful of films this year that is set in a beautiful, idyllic countryside, for a trip that turns out to be anything but. The breathtaking cinematography adds to the eventual gut punch that is MEN, luring us into a false sense of security with dreamy vistas. Within the first few minutes of her arrival, Geoffrey scolds Harper for eating an apple from the tree out front, calling it “forbidden fruit,” and though he quickly reveals he was joking, that uneasy feeling starts creeping in. The insidiousness of toxic masculinity is depicted right from the start, through flashbacks Harper had with her ex-husband before he died. From these snapshots, we see that James is manipulative, physically and emotionally abusive, and yet considers himself to be the “victim.”
When she escapes to the countryside to try to heal, Harper is bombarded by men, encroaching upon her sanctuary, invalidating her concerns, and feeling entitled to her time, her body, and whatever else. She keeps it pleasant with Geoffrey, but withholds the circumstances of her split, as well as other personal details from him. He’s comical in a dad joke, goofy uncle kind of way, and Buckley plays Harper with an authentic sadness and frustration with which I imagine far too many women will relate.
There is a lot of symbolic imagery in MEN, from The Green Man, a symbol of rebirth, and a Sheela na gig - a carving of a naked woman that is said to be used as a protection against evil, a warning against lust, or an act of rebellion against misogyny - to a dead crow, which can mean loneliness and despair, confronting an obstacle that must be overcome or removed, or the importance of adapting in the face of change. At one point a man quotes parts of the Yeats poem “Leda and the Swan” to Harper, which discusses Zeus’ assault of Leda, which leads to the birth of Helen of Troy, and the downfall of Troy itself.
Amid the “Me Too” movement, and the “cancellation” of celebrities like Louis C.K (who doesn’t quite seem cancelled since he just won a Grammy), it is not lost on me that Garland chose a poem about a man abusing a woman, and then vilifying her for the consequences that he caused. "Leda and the Swan" is also a poignant choice, seeing as some say though it clearly depicts a rape, that Leda eventually gives in to Zeus, and even enjoys it? How many times has a woman tried to come forward about an assault, only to be told, "You wanted it." This complete lack of self awareness is a recurring theme in the movie, which, along with the incredibly loud and unsettling (but amazing) score, had me feeling stressed through the duration of the film.
From a careless cop, a troubled youth, and a “friendly” landlord to a Vicar that will make your skin crawl, Kinnear is a tour de force. He’s the arthouse, Oscar-worthy version of Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor. While some versions of Kinnear seem less threatening than others, none of them are safe. Any time Harper is around more than one of them at once is terrifying. Add in the technique of the property lights flickering on and off (leaving pitch blackness at times), and it's downright unbearable. Not since Get Out has a man running been so scary.
Don’t assume that because MEN is very artful, that there are not legitimate scares, because a scene in the tunnel (seen in the trailer) now lives rent-free in my mind. All of this chaos and terror culminates in a third act so bloody and bizarre, that I dare not spoil it for anyone. You need to experience it yourself. Some takeaways, however, are that bad behavior begets bad behavior, and if we want to make any strides in equality, it cannot just be the women speaking up about these kinds of things. Until the titular men can empathize with the plight of women, and step up when the guys around them are being inappropriate, we're all doomed to be trapped in the same cycles of abuse.
Is MEN a fun, Friday night kind of horror? Absolutely not. It is triggering, unsettling, and at times, infuriating. But I also believe it is important viewing, especially for those named in the film's title.
A24’s MEN hits theaters on May 20, 2022.