FILM

The New Weird: The Mystery Of Alex Garland’s ‘Men’

Every man the traumatized heroine meets is a variation on The Man, laying out the film’s #MeToo agenda with bullet-point flagrancy

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Horror films aren’t just horror films anymore—like Alex Garland’s Men, these lurkers could be an emerging subgenre, and we could heretofore borrow a label from a recent sci-fi fiction trend and call it “The New Weird.”

From Kill List (2011) and Berberian Sound Studio (2012) to Upstream Color (2013), The Lobster (2015), Get Out (2017), Border (2018), Midsommar (2019), Us (2019), Atlantics (2019), She Dies Tomorrow (2020), In the Earth (2021), We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021), and so on, it’s a new tendency for indie genre filmmakers, using the tropes and impulses of horror to do… something else, mysteriously, metaphorically, and often inexplicably. Occasionally these films get mucked up in psychology, and get lost in their own refusal to nail a story down. But the fumes created by the films’ maddening recalcitrance can be heady.

Garland has until now hewed closer to oddball sci-fi, with scripts for 28 Days Later… (2002), Sunshine (2007), Never Let Me Go (2010), Ex Machina (2014), and Annihilation (2018), the last based on a famously “New Weird” sci-fi novel. Here, he goes for vaguer and more introverted spookhouse territory, but his love of conceptual nipple-twists still runs the show. Which may be the first problem this nervy and inventive film has to wrestle with: our preconceptions going in, based on that title, and on the conceptual casting flourish of having every male character in the film be played by the same actor (Rory Kinnear). So, every man the traumatized heroine (Jessie Buckley) meets is a variation on The Man, laying out the film’s #MeToo agenda with bullet-point flagrancy.

Expectations, and their evil twin sibling hype, are not concerns filmmakers generally entertain, but it can be an overwhelming part of our experience. So, in Men, we are from the outset battle-ready for it’s-not-that-it’s-this fliperoos, or at least the sidesteps of subjective psychology, which more or less pisses on the film’s narrative parade. Buckley is Harper, a woman scarred by the divorce-fueled suicide of her husband (Paapa Essiedu, the only other man in the film), and so, as movie characters so often do in contemporary movies, she takes a mind-clearing vacation in the country.

The Airbnb she gets in Hertfordshire, rented to her by a goofy local (Kinnear), is a gratuitously immense mansion, whose lavish real-estate-porn-ness, and presumed expense for a single renter, is our first clue toward the film’s creeping unreality. Wracked with guilt, all Harper wants is a cup of tea and a walk in the greenery, which she gets, coming upon a strange, scarred, very naked man (Kinnear) following her out of the woods. The policeman who arrests the naked man, and the local priest, and a deranged teenager, and a publican, are all Kinnear, in various wigs and teeth and digital adjustments. She doesn’t seem to notice (or does she see, and is merely unsurprised?), even as they subtly begin gaslighting her and accusing her of driving her poor husband to kill himself.

This is an interesting and discomfiting place to be for a while, but narratives progress, and so we wonder where we’re going and why—another question in which Garland doesn’t seem too interested. Instead, he dives in headfirst to folklore and iconography, particularly the Green Man legend and its expression of nature’s maniacal fecundity, which the way it eventually plays out here seems both beside whatever other point is on the table, and fabulously, hysterically mad. Did that baptism font have a relief icon of an open vagina? Did I spot an all-white chessboard, referencing Yoko Ono’s famous anti-war/anti-toxic masculinity art piece?

Garland does things you’ve never seen before—putting Kinnear through several literal ringers—but unfortunately the mythology and gross-out effects and crafty air of misogynist menace only add up to a metaphoric ordeal, a masked procedural of trauma and healing. The apples and single floating dandelion seed are symbols, see?

For all of its New Weirdness, the film proves to be ultimately conventional. It’s not hard to pine for the previous movie eras—from the ’20s to the ’80s, really—in which expository backstories were minimal, adults were who they were, and decisions made in the present fueled the stories, not weepy memories of the past. Garland chooses the easy, fashionable route instead, and makes heaven and earth move for the sake of one woman’s remorse.

Highlights