Review of A24 ‘Men’ – Alex Garland disturbs with surreal folk horror!

Director Alex Garland established a distinct penchant for the surrealist genre in just two features, Ex Machina and Destruction. In his latest, Men, the director tries his hand at simpler horror, permeating folk horror with his expressive style. The result is a more elusive effort waiting its time with measured harassment to an insane, memorable third act.

Harper (Jessie Buckley(retreats to an English village to recover and start again after her husband James’Paapa Essiedu) premature death. Property owner, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), clumsily walks around her place, then leaves her to settle down. Harper’s plans for peace and quiet are quickly shattered, however, when a walk through the neighboring woods catches the attention of someone who seems to be stalking her. Disturbing fear escalates into a full nightmare for Harper, forcing her to face internal and external fears.

Garland has an easier approach to Harper’s story. Although simple, her past is evolving slowly, coupled with an increasingly uncertain present. Harper’s walks to a nearby village result in various encounters with men, all played by Kinnear. Each new encounter and conversation personifies different anxieties or fears and gender divisions.

What is less simple are the images and symbolism loaded everywhere. Harper wears pink and earth tones, and the walls of the cottage are blood red. It contrasts with the lush greenery outside. The green man, the floating dandelion seeds, the apple tree and the gloomy tunnels in the middle of the emerald green forest suggest a greater mythology rich in fertility. There is a deliberate enigmatic quality of the all-encompassing nightmare that Harper found herself in, far greater than the family trauma that brought her to this point. Garland wants the audience to connect those bread crumbs on their own. Men‘with intangible, arthouse style will be polarized.

Buckley brings Harper’s intrinsic conflict to the surface with deft and unaccented nuances. This protagonist is at war with herself, struggling with a sense of guilt and remorse that clashes with her newly discovered sense of freedom. The relief he feels is at odds with the long-standing issues stemming from the tragedy. That Buckley is a fundamental character against Kinnear’s complicated juggling of multiple characters means he consistently threatens to steal the film beneath her. Especially considering the places he takes on those characters. Where Buckley impresses, Kinnear amazes and pushes boundaries; the actor strongly argues why he is one of the best working today.

As for horror, Garland opts for a slow build of disturbing fear. He wraps himself with increasing pressure, increasing his fears and intensity until he explodes in an insane third act that amazes the jaw that turns into the Grand Guignol. It’s a bold finale full of “shitty” moments that satisfies from a horror standpoint, bringing comprehensive themes in full circle. Garland is less successful in bringing Harper’s bow to a satisfactory or completely coherent end.

It’s ultimately the way Garland tries to merge Harper’s history with a big picture that obscures a magnificent piece of folk horror. Garland brings one stunning showstopper and shows an ability for fear and atmosphere. Only insured fuel from nightmares insures Men is a success despite its elusiveness, but Buckley and Kinnear are powerful people who hold you tight in their grip. Garland’s attachment to the abstract will be a division, but for those who don’t mind the enigmatic descents into surreal, creepy horror this journey will be worth it.

Men will be released in cinemas on May 20, 2022.

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