These days, “Elevated Horror” has seemingly become the sub-genre of choice for all things scary and spooky as it overtly wears it’s themes on its bloody sleeve while lashing you with thought provoking issues as well as the odd, mind-flaying image. Some see the genre as breath of fresh air and a welcome respite from cheap jump scares and hollow gore; others see it as smug, posturing that substitutes good, old fashioned scares in favour of pretentious, drawn out, melodrama – but whatever your take on it, your opinion will unlikely to be changed by Alex Garland’s latest, esoteric head fuck, Men.
Hardly a stranger to plots that seemingly unwind into a hellish oblivion for its characters (have you seen Oblivion?), Garland takes a theme that’s rich with the promise of endless commentary and entwines it with a gloriously inpenetrable final act that’ll enrapture some and most likely piss off others.
Harper Marlowe has retreated to a country retreat for a couple of weeks to try and heal from a recent personal tragedy that’s lanced through her psyche like a spear and upon arriving at the picturesque town, she is shown around her temporary abode by upper class owner, Geoffrey. After checking in with her friend over a video chat, Harper awakes the next morning and desides to soak up the surrounding nature by going out for a walk, but after becoming unnerved by a faraway figure she spots at the other end of a tunnel, she later encounters blank-faced, jaundiced man by a dilapidated house whose most notable and alarming attribute is that he’s stark bollock naked. Understandably unnerved by this, Harper heads home only for the man the eventually follow her and try to gain entrance, but after fending him off and calling the police, this strange, little nude dude is carted off and once again the beleaguered woman tries to get back to putting her recent tragedy behind her.
However, a subsequent visit to the local church proves to be equally weird as she encounters a strange, abusive child and a staggeringly inappropriate vicar who enraged her by blame shaming her about the incident that’s damaged her so – the apparent suicide of her husband after she demanded a divorce.
From then on, things start to unravel as a visit to the local pub and a chat with the locals reveals that the odd, naked man has actually been released from custody, something that the solely male clientele can’t seem to grasp is a problem. Frustrated, enraged and scared in equal measure, Harper returns home to find that the naked man has followed her again, but now, instead of covered in cuts and scars, he seems to be very much “of the forrest” and worse yet, this supernatural being has a connection with with all the other males she’s interacted with in the town.
Much like Jonathan Glazer’s under the skin, Men is one of those movies that is designed to unsettle your nerve and creep your skin – two things it actually does very well – but most of all, it contains an absolutely bonkers final third that seems crafted specifically to promote fiercely strange debate on the journey home when it comes to what Garland is actually trying to achieve. From the beginning of the film, it seems that Men’s central gimmick is to play the belief “that men are all the same” as literally as it can with every single one of the males living in town played by Rory Kinnear in a succession of League Of Gentlemen-style identities. However, even this is up for debate simply by the fact that Jessie Buckley’s traumatised Harper doesn’t seem to see the obvious resemblance between everyone from bumbling landlord Geofrey to mask wearing brat, Sam, to the birthday suit wearing weirdo who spouts thorns and branches as the film goes on, which raises questions such as are these people actually all the same, or is this simply a stylistic flourish employed by the writer/director to further drive his point home? Either way, it certainly gives Kinner a chance to shine as he dons scraggly wigs, protruding dentures and, in the case of Sam, upsettingly weird CGI, to bring all these different aspects of quietly toxic, male behavior to bare. Geoffrey is patronisingly chivalrous to a fault, awkwardly standing around awaiting more praise or thanks than he actually deserves while the local vicar and the policeman subtly lusts and victim blames in equal measure.
However, more than holding her own in the face of Kinner’s sinisterly showy turn is Buckley’s rock of a performance who gives the emotionally wounded Harper a grounded dignity while forces both internal and external threaten to tear her apart and she is living proof that one thing Elevated Horror certainly has going for it is that it has some absolute crackers when it comes to actors giving their all with repeated flashbacks to Harper’s crumbling marriage and it’s tragic ending being especially raw.
And then we come to the climax, which absolutely redefines the phrase crackers, as Garland dives into full force body horror without any kind of easy-to-swallow explanation to aid us whatsoever. Weird, trippy and utterly fucked up, the movie treats us to the sight of extreme mutilation (the bifurcated arm is a showstopper) and whatever the hell Kinner actually is creating a mockery of childbirth as it painfully disgorges other versions of himself out of a vagina like some awesomely perverse Russian doll.
Those searching for easy answers will no doubt be repelled by Men like a force field and sometimes Men overplays the confusing card, but then I have to wonder if that maybe on top of the entertainingly caustic view of the male kind, Garland is also poking a few cheeky holes in the very nature of Elevated Horror itself, grotesquely exaggerating the themes to the nth degree as he plays with the conventions to make a movie that is as open to personal interpretation as anything else I’ve seen this year.
One thing’s for sure, it’s blatantly unlike anything I’ve seen for a while as it takes the themes of social commentary, the conventions of Elevated Horror and the framework of Folk Horror, mixes them up inside the belly of some sort of pagan earth god and births them all over the floor from its weirdly placed man-gina for us to pick over and argue about (Choice conversation topic: “But just where is a good place to put a vagina on a man?”).
A fascinating, thoughtful, creepy and deliberately frustrating view of the male species from the point of view of a victimized woman, take it from me, there’s nothing typical about Men.