A Spectacular Debut and Disappointing Follow-Up.
After writing two perfect screenplays one adapted (“Never Let me Go”) and one original (“28 Days Later) Alex Garland made a spectacular movie debut with one of the best science-fiction thriller movies ever made “Ex Machina”. It made a star of Alicia Vikander and earned him a much deserved Oscar nomination for Best original Screenplay.
His follow-up, the Natalie Portman led “Annihilation”, although a huge disappointment, had it’s moments of interest.
The Always Superb Jessie Buckley
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of his latest film “Men” which stars the always superb Jessie Buckley as Harper, a widowered young woman who goes on a solo (of course) vacation to an old house (of course) in the English countryside. There, she begins to receive some unwanted attention from the men in the community. And, in what may have originally been a stroke of genius but eventually becomes tiresome, all the men are played by the same actor, Rory Kinnear.
The film, which is bathed in allegory – the first thing Harper does when she arrives at the house is pick an apple from a tree followed by a scolding – can never make up its mind whether it is an intelligent puzzle in the tradition of “The Lobster” or “Midsommar” or a old-fashioned horror/slasher movie. And at no point does Harper notice that every man she meets has the same face!
Suspense and Emotional Trauma
The opening twenty minutes, as Harper explores the property, have a nice creepy feeling and these scenes are nicely intercut with flashbacks of the final moments of Harper’s marriage. This is Garland at his best and Buckley is marvelous at conveying the sense of unease at seeing a strange man in the distance or the emotional trauma at the end of a love affair. And then there is the scene where Harper locks eyes with her husband in what may be 2022’s most inventive and upsetting cinematic moment.
It’s Not a Puzzle, It’s a Pretense
Unfortunately, about 30 minutes in, it becomes painfully obvious that Garland has run out of ideas and has nowhere to take us on Harper’s journey. We realize that what we are watching is not a puzzle but a pretense. A pretense that leads to a final sequence that is at once so obvious and so grotesque as to be laughable.
You come out of the movie relieved. Not relieved because you have just spent ninety minutes at the edge of your seat. No, it’s the relief you get after being released from a prison of boredom.