Sigh. Let me get the dumb jokes out of the way so I can get to the review:
- A horror movie named MEN in the year of our lord 2022 – too easy
- I mean the film not the gender HURRRRRRR
- Gotta talk about the low-hanging fruit HURRRRRR
- It gave me all the Rory Kinnear I ever wanted and more – SO MUCH MORE
- I’d scrumble Geoffrey’s apples (well, maybe not his)
There! I had more but I’m tired. Note: I might not be at the top of my game right now with this viewing and review – I might revisit the movie in a few months to see what occurs then.
Anyway -Let me clear something further up – I didn’t hate MEN. I enjoyed it! I will own it when it’s available for purchase! I’ll break down what it did right and wrong in full later, but what you should understand now is that I am NOT hating on MEN.
MEN’s ad campaign set high expectations: there were blurbs like ‘GAME CHANGER!’, high marks from the Onion AV Club and other respectable review sources. I was expecting the film to do for discussions about the patriarchy what Jordan Peele’s GET OUT did for discussions about racism. Instead, it avoided that discussion and settled for being stylish and posing more questions than it answered.
There’s room for film that provokes conversation; it is refreshing to talk through concepts with other filmgoers, thereby expanding an otherwise solitary enjoyment to a group one. A24 does this time and time again, making (pleasant, sane) discourse all but necessary for their works. But MEN pushed right past that and brushed perilously close to incoherence.
As always, spoilers down below:
What MEN Got Right
It got so much right. For a horror movie focusing on how pervasive/invasive men are to an emotionally exhausted and traumatized woman just trying to get through the day, it understood the assignment.
Were Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear amazing in their roles? They were! Both are award winning actors of high caliber so of course they were. The sets, costumes, cinematography, camera work, sound design, setting – all were amazing.
The trailers did an almost too-good job of setting up not only the story, but the whole concept.
Harper Marlowe, played by Jessie Buckley, has rented a beautiful English country house for two weeks in order to process the death, and possible suicide, of her husband. She’s in a fragile state – she was trying to leave her husband, who responded by becoming emotionally and then physically abusive. He threatens to kill himself if she leaves, which is why she isn’t sure whether his death was an accident or not. She needs a break.
The house is beautiful, but Geoffrey the landlord (Kinnear, in the first of his 8 roles) is English countryman-weird in an affable but mildly creepy way, and he does all the dumb things men trying too hard to be pleasant do: he makes awkward jokes about her stealing his apples (SCRUMPING, he coins), insists on carrying up her heavy luggage which he can barely manage, is blunt when a lighter touch is needed (the septic tank discussion), and asks personal questions of someone whose boundaries he ought to be respecting. Note that he asks about ‘hubby’ rather than using a more sexuality-neutral ‘spouse.’ But this is also part of the very intelligent writing – a character like this is going to assume all women, especially ones he’s interested in, are straight. It’s true she put ‘Mrs.’ on the application but he asks in an insinuating, wheedling kind of way and really, it’s not his business. He’s asking for his own interest, not for any actual need.
Director Alex Garland got so much of this interaction between Geoffrey and Harper right, but there were some opportunities not explored that I will mention in the ‘what he missed/got wrong’ section.
Another moment that is an absolute perfect depiction of life among MEN is Harper’s encounter with the Vicar (we’re about 5 Rorys deep now, assuming the guy in the tunnel was another Rory). It’s set up beautifully – after taking a walk that turns sinister and searching for an ostensibly safe space, Harper is reliving the last fight she had with her husband before his death, and allowing herself a little screaming freak-out in the quiet church. She saw her husband die after he struck her, she’s earned it. However, she’s not aware she’s being observed by the Vicar, who seems to respect her space enough to leave her be, but approaches her afterward outside the church. These are all good choices – he’s respecting her privacy, but still wants to be sure this person apparently in crisis is safe. Or so it seems.
After sitting with her, he encourages her to open up, if she wishes. The perfect moment I’m talking about is here – after she begins to explain her situation a bit, the Vicar sits up. It’s as if he’s intending to comfort her physically, but instead folds his hands and listens, as if he reminded himself to keep his hands to himself. It’s not overt, but it’s there, and if intentional it’s one of the best choices in the film. It’s a comforting moment that again encourages Harper to continue her story, showing he understands and respects boundaries. THEN – just after he starts to victim-blame her for her husband’s death, he crosses THE BIG LINE and just puts his hand on her leg. Just does it! Harper has enough and leaves. The entirety of the moment – from him straightening up to the hand – is a perfect encapsulation of an experience many women will encounter again and again – someone coming in the guise of a neutral helper begins to view boundaries as for other people rather than himself. “I’m helping! So I’ll help myself to something I want to do with her body. I have earned it.” That was a good, good scene.
What MEN Got Wrong
To revisit the Geoffrey intro scene – being alone with a strange man in a strange house can be nerve-wracking, which could have been shown more in the blocking of scenes. A few times Geoffrey moves very close to Harper, and Buckley doesn’t react at all. In the kitchen she does move to the other side of the island to put an object between them, and that was good. That’s the sort of thing I do when I’m alone with someone I’m unsure about. Or I am careful to stand more than arm’s reach away.
Another point – once all the MEN show up at the house, we lose Harper as a character. The camera focuses on her a lot less than it does on the MEN she’s escaping from, and we don’t see her thought process played out much onscreen. Close-ups are mostly on the MEN, what they’re doing or about to do. From here on out, she is reacting to them by running away, fighting, or hiding.
I found the ending unsatisfying because I wanted some indication whether this was all happening IRL or whether Harper was insane and had gone on a misandrist murder spree. Reilly finding her smiling was nice, but I needed to know whose blood was trailing into the house. I needed an answer to the biggest question posed by the movie, which is: Did this woman get the healing she needed, or did she just perpetuate a cycle of trauma? Is the ambiguity the point?
The choice to cast one actor in multiple roles was bold and I applaud it. Penny Dreadful fans will remember Rory Kinnear’s flawless performance of both The Creature and The Orderly (and it could be argued multiple roles within each, between The Creature’s emotional journey and The Orderly’s manifestation as Satan). I assumed the choice was rooted in the psychological theory that people are subconsciously drawn to those who remind them of other ‘types’ of people in their lives, under the expectation they will fulfill the same type of role. A protective big brother, a comforting aunt or sister, a wise grandfather, a mother or father providing guidance – Jungian archetypes with a Freudian twist. I did assume that there would be a big reveal at the end that Harper’s husband was actually played by Rory Kinnear and she blocked reality in order to deal with it, and the trauma made her project his face everywhere. But nope! That didn’t happen. Admittedly, that idea would have been a bit facile.
There is no explanation given why all these MEN look alike – it’s not overtly explained as psychological; the Green Man’s presence indicates there could be some kind of mythological/magical reason, though. I thought ‘perhaps they are all creatures who spawned from a single ancestor,’ and well, I was kind of proven right with the man-birthing scene. That was also a good time to explore how often women encounter men with buried or hidden emotional trauma that reveals itself over time – sins of the father, abuse from society, etc. Then I thought they were like ants, waiting for a queen to take over their anthill and mate with their Green Man king. The Vicar wanted sex, the Little Boy wanted a mother, Geoffrey wanted someone to laugh at his dumb jokes, and I suppose the Green Man wanted someone to look after him.
In a weird way it’s like Garland thought of all that and decided ‘no, no I’d rather not explain anything. Let them wonder.’ This isn’t that wonderful classic, The Wicker Man. It seems more of a dream. Maybe the moment with the deer carcass predicated an extended hallucination. I don’t know. I am really looking forward to a Blu-Ray with hours of extra footage and/or about three separate endings. I see that shooting wrapped almost exactly a year ago, so the movie has been in post-production for some time, and a lot can happen then.
Thank you for reading this review of MEN. Please let me know what you thought down in the comments, and feel free to like, share or even subscribe! I don’t blog as much as I used to but I’m trying to get back to it. And later in the year, I’ll be doing some more podcasting of chapters from my first book, Adelaide’s origin story, The Secret Wilderness. Have a great day, take care of yourself out there!