This is a film that I was pretty intrigued about as soon as it was announced. I have liked the previous films that Alex Garland has directed and his style looked like it would work well for folk horror. The trailers that I saw further peaked my interest, especially with the conceit of the role Rory Kinnear would have in the film. Seeing the film, it was a bit of a frustrating experience as it is two thirds of a strong horror film, with an ending that really drew me out of the experience.
The film follows Harper Marlow, a widow who goes on holiday to a small village around the Cotswolds. Whilst there, she intends to use it for peace and quiet, after the death of her abusive husband, but soon gets drawn into a more horrific environment, with her experiencing being stalked and the men of the village acting in uncomfortable ways towards her, creating an unsettling environment around her. I did find that the first two thirds of the film worked pretty well. All of the different men in the village embody different elements of misogyny and creepy attitudes towards women, showing the more mundane horror of the men, working well with the isolated experience Harper has in the village, and providing a good counterpoint to the more directly abusive actions of Harper’s husband, James. Through Harper’s interactions with her friend, and the few other women in the film, there is a sense of support that the women create and this provides a strong contrast with the actions of the men. However, I found that these interesting themes and more powerful, quieter horror of the film went a bit out of the window at the end of the film, which was focused more on surrealistic imagery and body horror that the film didn’t really earn. It felt to me to be surreal for surrealness sake and, whilst there were a few points where I understand what Alex Garland was going for, I found the jump into this more bombastic style of horror to be a bit too out of left field and I don’t think it works as well as the quieter horror of the earlier sections of the film.
The performances though help to make the film work. Jessie Buckley as Harper does a great job at showing the sense of stress that she feels and how the holiday is needed to relax her, along with the growing sense of dread and terror that Harper feels as the events of the film unfold. There are also interesting elements of her performance in relation to her reaction to the abuse she received from James and the way that women can be gaslit and manipulated in these scenarios, with Buckley doing a good job at showing her escape from this. I do feel that there needed to be a little bit more at the ending to complete her arc and fully expand the character, but I kind of understand where Garland was coming from with how he wrote the character. Rory Kinnear meanwhile does an excellent job throughout the film. The main conceit of the film is that, when Harper arrives in the village, every single man there is played by Kinnear and he does a great job at playing the different kinds of abusive and manipulative characters there, from the vicar who is victim blaming Harper and blaming her for James’ death, to the owner of the cottage who is outwardly the most normal but has something off about his mannerisms, Kinnear gives each of his characters a unique feel that works well in making it so, at first, you can forget that each of the men is played by Kinnear, with it only being blatantly brought up at the end of the film and the way Buckley and Kinnear play off each other works well in selling the quieter horror of the film.
The technical elements of the film are also well handled. Garland knows how to make good use of the backgrounds to build horror, putting elements there that you see out of the corner of your eye and creates an unsettling vibe. He also makes good use of the countryside environment, along with DP Rob Hardy, to show the sense of isolation in the village, adding to the folk horror vibes. There are a few points which feel inspired by The Wicker Man and, when it works, it has that same unsettling feel as that. The use of colour also works in creating a foreboding atmosphere, mainly the red in the house Harper is staying in, creating the feel of unease even in a supposedly safe environment. This is aided by the music and sound design which is used effectively in creating a creepy, unsettling atmosphere throughout. The make-up and effects work for Kinnear meanwhile makes good use of the uncanny valley, particularly with Kinnear playing a kid, to make each character he plays look a bit off, which further adds to the disturbing implications of Kinnear playing each character.
Overall, I wanted to like Men more than I did. There are really good horror elements, but the ending of the film detracts from the horrific power that it had in the early stages. This could have been another classic of folk horror, but it ends up being more surreal for the sake of being surreal.
My Rating: 3/5