The new A24 folk-horror film Men, currently playing in theaters, is creepy as hell for the first hour, and then some. But then it gets so grotesquely wacky at the end that you may have a similar reaction to its heroine — she gets a blank, just slightly disgusted look on her face, walks away, and shuts the door behind her.
Still, it’s no easy thing doing genuinely scary horror, and Alex Garland — writer-director of Ex Machina (2015), Annihilation (2018) and Devs (2020), and before that, screenwriter of The Beach (2000) and 28 Days Later (2002) — has managed it for a solid hour, at least. The film is so nerve-racking in certain sequences that I regretted seeing it alone at night. To add to the intense uneasiness of the experience, for some reason I was the only woman in the theatre with a few dozen men, a scenario with uncomfortable resonance given the plot of the movie.
The frame story involves the breakup of Harper (Jessie Buckley) and her husband James (Paapa Essiedu), who refuses to accept her statement that she wants a divorce. He threatens to kill himself. Their final encounter — which ends after he hits her and she throws him out — occurs during a sunset that turns the entire apartment an acid shade of fiery orange. She’s standing there in the same hellish light, nose bloody, when she sees her husband’s body drop down past her window.
Haunted by his suicide, and wanting to get away from London, she takes a trip to the country, where she’s rented a splendid old estate house for a week. The countryside around it is so magnificently green and forested, you’re sure to get momentarily distracted by its beauty. It’s meant to look so verdant in contrast to that horrible urban orange of sun bouncing off cement, you feel better, lulled into a false sense of peace and pleasure.
But Garland soon begins terrifying you when the confident Harper goes for a long walk alone in the woods, along abandoned railroad lines overgrown with greenery. Suffice to say that, as soon as she encounters the long, dark tunnel in the forest, with the little circle of sunny green at the far end, you know she should never, ever walk down it. But she does. She even stops to test out the echo, singing a series of notes into the tunnel that create an eerie, reverberated song.
It’s remarkable how anxiety-producing this is. Its maddening that Harper should be so at ease when she’s alone in a strange — a very strange — place. Which just goes to show the thoroughness of cultural brainwashing about women’s complete lack of safety in the world, that even the image of a young woman, however tough, out there on her on her own, going willingly into a secluded locale makes you yell at her inwardly, “Get out of there, you idiot! Don’t sing and call attention to yourself!”
Then she sees a man in silhouette at the end of the tunnel, so far away he’s a tiny figure down there. He just stands there for a few moments. And then he starts running at her.
And that’s just the first of a series of disturbing-to-terrifying encounters with local men. There’s the runner in the woods; and the naked man, apparently mentally ill and homeless; and the threatening teenager who calls her a bitch; and the speciously sympathetic vicar who initially consoles Harper in her grief, then puts a hand on her leg and asks her why she drove her husband to suicide; and the stodgy, unhelpful village cop; and the bearded bartender; and so on. The thing is, they all look like the first man Harper meets in the country, the garrulous rural landlord who rents her the splendid house, Geoffrey, played by Rory Kinnear (Peterloo, Our Flag Means Death).
Kinnear plays all the men. And he’s a great actor, fully up to the job, with a naturally menacing face. He and Jessie Buckley (Lost Daughter, I’m Thinking of Ending Things) bring such commitment to their roles, they do a lot to power the narrative toward the end, even when it starts to collapse into bathetic confusion.
The surreal element of showing us that every man in the area has the same face is made more surreal because Harper never seems to notice it:
“Is it that all these men are the same and she fails to notice that?” Garland said. “Or is it that she sees all men as the same, even though they’re actually different? And those questions are incredibly similar in their wording, but they’ve got very different implications.”
And this is where the trouble starts. All through the film, Garland is winding up his little ideas about gender hostility and toxic masculinity and watching them go. But by the end, he’s so intent on driving this point home that all the terror drains out of the film, and only world-weary annoyance remains at seeing him reach for the didactic images that explain the heavy-handed points he wants to make.
Too bad. The rule has always been, the more overt and explanatory you get about horror, the less scary it is. Garland’s initial idea of the film, which he began to draft 15 years ago, about “an inarticulate dread and horror aimed toward women,” with all the ambiguity that implies, was something he should’ve stuck with all the way through.
Garland was on the right track with so many aspects of the film, such as his use of the Green Man, a mysterious character that was repeatedly sculpted into Medieval Christian churches in Northern Europe and the British Isles. Considered by some to be an ancient pagan fertility symbol, and taken up as a counterculture icon by the New Age movement, the Green Man is so persistent an image, you’ll probably know him when you see him in the film:
The Green Man is a decorative design with a human face. Leaves and stems twist around the features, usually originating from the mouth. He can leer, he can grin. Sometimes he looks as if he is screaming in pain.
That icon’s unsettling level of mystery and ambiguity coming out of the harsh past, inexplicable in the present and inspiring wildly contradictory theories, is ideal for horror. So it’s too bad about the ending, which explicitly ties together the frame story and the countryside haunting, among other too-literal developments. Though, as always, credit must be given to Alex Garland for taking risks and going for unusual effects. As he puts it about the controversial ending, “that’s the thing about taking big swings”.
On the plus side, if you see the movie with friends, the ending will definitely give you plenty to talk about. Just don’t go alone at night, is my advice — because at least for the first hour, this is a unique and imaginative horror movie that really works.
Eileen Jones is a film critic at Jacobin and author of Filmsuck, USA. She also hosts a podcast called Filmsuck.
Featured image: A24
This review was first published on Jacobin.