Combustible Celluloid
 
With: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu, Gayle Rankin, Sarah Twomey, Zak Rothera-Oxley, Sonoya Mizuno
Written by: Alex Garland
Directed by: Alex Garland
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing and violent content, graphic nudity, grisly images and language
Running Time: 100
Date: 05/20/2022
IMDB

Men (2022)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Womb to Tomb

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

For his third feature film as director, Alex Garland theoretically goes even deeper than in his first two, Ex Machina (2015) and Annihilation (2018), although in this case, "deeper" is relative. It's like trying to measure which nightmare is more truthful. Men begins on Harper (Jessie Buckley), standing in an apartment bathed in orange light, her nose bleeding. She goes to the window, and a man plummets past, his wide-eyed, horror-filled gaze catching hers as he drops. We learn through flashbacks that this is her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu). They had a terrible fight, which ended with James punching Harper in the face, and Harper kicking him out. He apparently pushed his way into an upstairs neighbor's apartment, climbed out onto the balcony, and either slipped or jumped. Harper will never know which.

So she rents a gorgeous cottage in the English countryside in which to rest and grieve and recover. She's met there and shown around by Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), who is almost a cliché of the foppish, perpetually embarrassed Englishman in tweed. She settles in, FaceTimes with her friend Riley (Gayle Rankin), and has a walk in the nearby woods, an impossibly peaceful, idyllic place colored in a royal green. Harper seems entranced, even when a misty drizzle wets her hair. Then she comes to a foreboding tunnel, huge, long, and unforgivingly dark. She goes to its center, finds a delightful echo, and makes a little song for herself, her perfectly pitched "ahs" bouncing back in a mesmerizing rhythm. (Composers Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury — whose score for Annihilation was deeply, psychically spooky — brilliantly use Buckley's voice within the remaining soundtrack.)

But something also changes in the tunnel, turning this garden of Eden into a nightmare. She becomes lost, and, crossing a field, spots a totally naked man, staring at her unsettlingly. More alarmingly, the naked man later appears threateningly outside her windows at the cottage. She calls the police, and they take the man — apparently homeless — away. She tries another walk, and finds a church, adorned not only with Christian symbols, but also some decidedly non-Christian symbols — preliminary research reveals these to be a "Sheela-na-gig" and a "Green Man" — on a dais. She meets a strange boy who at first seems to wearing a Marilyn Monroe (?) mask, then removes it to reveal a grown man's face. She also meets a priest, who at first seems sympathetic, but soon asks Harper what she may have done to "drive" her husband to his death.

It may seem like I've described a lot of Men, but this is barely the surface. At about this time, we may be getting flashes of Polanski's Repulsion, of a woman being pushed to the brink of sanity by men and the limited way in which they view women. (The boy calls her a "stupid bitch" for not wanting to play hide-and-seek with him.) And certainly Garland has set up absolutely everyone and everything as ciphers, potentially ordinary, but also potentially dangerous. Harper can trust nothing or no one. And everything shifts around her with undulating nightmare logic, so alarming as to seem unreal. Harper may be losing her mind — and I think many viewers will assume that that's what is happening — but what if she isn't?

The "Sheela-na-gig" and "Green Man" sculptures deal with (roughly), birth and rebirth, and can also be a deterrent to demons. Garland may have borrowed these concepts (and possibly others) and mixed them up with Harper's own situation — childless, grieving, guilty, etc. — emerging with a new monster. As the title indicates, it's a monster that has to do partly with female reproductive powers, as well as men's fascination with and repulsion to those powers. The monster is also physically connected, in certain ways, with the departed James. Tellingly, as the film goes on, Harper's reaction to the escalating insanity changes from hysterical to defiant. (Her outfits, which range from masculine to feminine, may also provide clues, which — knowing little about fashion — I am unqualified to decipher.)

Now, all of this is just a guess. Men is an insane film, unafraid to go bigger and more nightmarish and more gruesome and more shocking with every minute. And yet it also appears to have been very deliberately constructed, from start to finish. It contains images so disturbing that it makes the movie the least re-watchable of Garland's three, even though it's arguably the one that most requires multiple viewings to disentangle. There's also the question of whether or not this is a truly feminist film, given that Garland is the sole credited writer. As empathetic as he may be toward women, he's still an outsider looking in, and it's not, can never be, a complete picture.

My overall reaction is that, even though a thorough understanding of the film is perhaps just out of reach, it's maybe 90% there. It's a deeply challenging experience, not only on an intellectual level, but on a visceral one. (It's as close to a David Lynch film as anyone has ever come.) It may be some time before I'll ever want to revisit it, but it's also a film that has wormed its way inside my head. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. Oh, and it cements Buckley as one of the bravest actors we have right now. Whatever we might go through watching Men, she went through 100 times more being in it.

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