It’s the tip of the blade.
Harper (Jessie Buckley) arrives at the gorgeous country estate owned and rented out by a kindly yet awkward man (Rory Kinnear‘s Geoffrey) in a bid to escape the tragic turmoil surrounding her. Anyone who’s seen the trailer knows said turmoil stems from the death of her husband James (Paapa Essiedu), his face falling in front of the window that she gazed out from has permanently fixed to her brain. When someone asks whether she’s tormented by this event, she rejects the word. When they suggest “haunted,” however, she agrees. It’s an interesting distinction because from our seat it’s definitely the former, but she’s yet to fully realize what we have: that the town she’s chosen to wield for respite is coming for her. It’s feeding off her pain.
That’s an interesting angle for writer/director Alex Garland to take with his folk horror Men. He’s created a supernatural entity in the forest that is enamored by Harper and the anguish she’s struggling to bear. But rather than build off that antagonistic connection as one between two human beings, he decides to intentionally shift focus to the fact that the victim is a woman and the aggressor a man. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing since there’s a lot to be said about the inherent misogyny of our patriarchal world. One might even read what Garland’s put on-screen as exactly that too. It’s therefore unfortunate that I cannot. It sadly feels less like he’s using the premise to say something than exploiting it for superficial catharsis.
By putting the spotlight on Harper and her experience with gradually revealed townspeople that range from hostile to apathetic to intrusive (all men who live there are also played by Kinnear, even a young boy courtesy of facial replacement technology that thankfully improves during the climax after initially leaving a lot to be desired), Garland’s seemingly allowing this to be a depiction of the horrors that women must face every day. There’s the boy who calls her a “bitch” because she refuses to play hide-and-seek. The police officer who scoffs at her fear, brushing it off as exaggerated “hysterics” while involuntarily giving the man she fears the benefit of the doubt. And, of course, the “nice guys” worming their way in closer before maliciously misconstruing politeness as consent.
It’s effectively drawn with Buckley providing a fantastic performance as the target of their abuse, but this isn’t really a message movie. As Garland’s star even admits in the press notes, she read the script as a “provocation rather than an answer” for the increasingly contentious dynamic between men and women this past decade. That, of course, means Kinnear’s character also receives the same level of agency and purpose as her Harper. More than just a monster, his woodland visage—naked and covered in cuts that will soon be meticulously filled with leaves—is a narrative equal. His multiple forms attempting to turn the mirror and gaslight her into believing she’s at fault for his rage and violence becomes less about exposing vileness than giving him a voice.
Is it provocative? Sure. It’s also a misguided case of both-sides-ism that seeks to find complexity in what has been proven time and time again to be a binary truth. Because, while you don’t have to be a woman to tell a story about women, it does help when you’re telling a story about an explicitly female experience. Cishet men can believe women when they say they’re afraid. They can empathize with the sentiments of that well-worn anecdote about men fearing women will laugh at them while women fear men will kill them. But they cannot know what it’s like to live with that fear. And while an actor of Buckley’s caliber can breathe life into Garland’s assumptions and overcome many limitations, the hollowness of the writing remains.
By giving Kinnear’s predator equal footing to Harper, Garland has stripped away all room for profundity. Where we might originally presume the men on-screen all have the same face because she is projecting it as a coping mechanism for her emotional duress, that type of metaphorical reckoning flies out the window the second we reach an infamous climax of biological Matryoshka doll grotesquery. We should have known from the start since Kinnear’s face is not the same as the one that haunts her, but ultimately discovering this creature is warping her memories to create a new horror in its likeness that it can then weaponize for new terror leaves no mistake. Men is thus as much about what women must endure as it is what men can enforce.
What is it saying then? Nothing new and, perhaps, nothing at all. It trades in generalizations and exploits vulnerability in simplistic terms. (Because Harper is trapped by her mentally unstable husband who builds power via his ability to control her through manipulation and physical force, growth is reductively delivered through her constant rejections siphoning the power from Kinnear’s men and leaving them a pathetic mess of insecurities.) Buckley is putting this whole thing on her shoulders with devastating potency while Kinnear lends an effectively off-putting creepiness, but to what end? Pollination as insemination with Harper’s “feminine allure” fueling the self-replication of men leads to high-concept visual insanity devoid of substance. And erasing gaslit guilt by committing the act with intent later isn’t healing. It’s disposably convenient therapeutic fantasy.
 Jessie Buckley Courtesy of A24
 Rory Kinnear Photo Credit: Kevin Baker
 (L-R) Rory Kinnear, Jessie Buckley Photo Credit: Kevin Baker