Here we are again.
Another mononymous A24 horror title bravely plunging into the murky depths of human depravity, with Alex Garland of Ex Machina following in the footsteps of the studio’s flagship director Ari Aster, the acclaimed helmsman of Hereditary and Midsommar. Aster has spoken of an encouraged freedom to explore “strange and weird ideas” under A24, a liberal mandate to disturb, to invoke primality, to terrorise the hidden receptacles of the mind. This directive must be the horror craftsman’s dream, presenting an unpenetrated voodoo doll through which they can stick a multitude of pins for the audience’s voluntary displeasure.
Certainly, horror is popular, but it is the new wave of the indie-folk variety which enjoys exponentially more critical favour than franchised, cheap blockbuster thrillers such as It and The Conjuring, diving deeper into psychic trenches with nuanced symbols and allegories as opposed to regurgitating the same fetishized figureheads of fear – clowns, dolls, skeletons and the like.
Within folk horror, there are similar foundational frights – the inherent creepiness of a cultish, pagan environment, the abandonment of the wilderness, the isolation of the protagonist in an often illegally broadminded, lawless society – but such tropes are rarely intended as standalone scares, rather laying the bedrock for deep and meaningful revelations within a tortured hero. Think of The Wicker Man and its evolution beyond instinctive terror, into a microscopic examination of Police Sergeant Howie’s constitution of values, how it pits the diametric opposites of paganism and Christianity, prudish conservatism and emancipated sexuality to produce a deferred, guttural dread, to run a crack through the concrete cornerstone of our sense of safety.
The Wicker Man’s conclusion is unflinchingly barbaric, mocking and torturous, a meticulously composed culmination of philosophical and cinematic endeavour which is undeniably earned and thus to be excused for the despondency and vengefulness it provokes.
Everything within Men, surrounding Men, screams the opposite. The monosyllabic title is a tired grunt with too much faith in the subsequent material to provide the nuance it lacks, while the poster features the eponymous label stamped over a gurning Rory Kinnear in a blatant red, like a ‘classified’ watermark on an incendiary document. This is not egregious, but rather indicative of Men’s further failings. A cast of various bewigged Kinnears in unsettling garbs and guises is the surface-level, dopaminergic lure with which to entice audiences into the cinema, the uncanny substitute for the pagans or the clowns or the dolls.
Unfortunately, Garland’s ensemble of identical incels never compensate for the promotional material’s lack of depth. A ruthlessly puritanical priest, a careless policeman and a graveyard-dwelling pre-teen smothered by a brutal deepfake of Kinnear’s ill-fitting face are three of the hastily caricatured hunters of Men’s co-lead, Harper, played by Jessie Buckley. Retreating to the country to escape the memory of her abusive husband’s suicide, she initially relishes the picturesque solitude of the fictitious Cotson, though its labyrinthine rurality and parochial sinisterism envelop its superficial charm and aim to swallow Harper.
After her introduction to the hamlet through an exaggeratedly bucktoothed landlord, the army of Kinnears begin to writhe through Cotson’s medieval stonework and mazy woodland, establishing an initially promising balance of tension and intrigue. Men reaches its peak within this state of precipitous dread, before tumbling rapidly down the other side of the vertex into an appalling sequence of gratuitous sexual gore, beginning when Harper gains a shellshocked, naked stalker in the woods and ending when each deadly doppelgänger pursues her in turn, all naked and glistening in amniotic fluid having been graphically birthed by their previous incarnation. The sequence is more visually offensive than you could imagine and blurs Garland’s already irritating (though at least intellectually tangible) faux feminist evangelising into a meaningless rotation of bloody obstetrics, producing an undeniably frightening but fundamentally worthless sequence which spites the audience’s time, money and intelligence emphatically.
Gore, huh, yeah, what is it good for? Well, surely something better than this. Men is not a useless film – it displays initial promise, boasts three stellar actors in Buckley, Kinnear and Paapa Essiedu and a fabulous Director of Photography in Rob Hardy, all of whom are admirably committed to the carnage. Rather this: Men is a film you’ll want to forget but won’t be able to, a hollow monument to a trite message, the ugly crossing of an invisible line and, unfortunately, a supreme waste of obvious talent.
Or maybe it’s just me.