“Men” Brings Alex Garland Into Surreal and Unfamiliar Territory

The acclaimed director of “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation” sheds his science fiction roots for a foray into surreal horror.

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Yet with “Men,” I relished the discomfort inherent in its inscrutability instead of shying away from it.

By Neel Lahiri

It is always fascinating to see how success affects a director’s output. There are some who use the bigger budgets they are afforded to double down on the notes they’ve hit with their first films. The allegorical horror of Jordan Peele (Get Out and Us) and the sumptuous, psychologically complex period pieces of Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse, and The Northman) come to mind. There are some who seem to be preternaturally incapable of entering a comfort zone in their filmmaking. Consider the Coen brothers. Their career has spanned the full gamut of genre, from noir to screwball comedy to gangster epic to Western to…well, the list goes on. One would be forgiven for thinking that their first two features, Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, were made by completely different filmmakers.

And then there is Alex Garland, whose latest feature Men somehow feels of a piece with yet completely distinct from his previous work. His directorial output (up to this point, the feature films Ex Machina and Annihilation, along with the miniseries Devs) has been centered on the simplest, yet perhaps biggest question we face: What does it mean to be human? Much of Garland's acclaim has related to the manner in which he avoids the ponderousness that is all too easy to indulge in when examining such weighty themes. Genre is Garland’s clever trick: the sci-fi elements of his work ground the stories and make their thematic heft digestible.

Little of that applies to Men. It eludes the easy genre descriptions one can associate with his previous work (surrealist horror is the best I can do, though it doesn’t really capture the film in the same way that say, “cosmic horror/sci-fi” captures Annihilation). The questions it asks are moreover not focused on what makes humanity unique so much as what characterizes the conflicts operating within humanity—largely, as the spare yet apt title suggests, the conflicts about sex, in both senses of the term.

The film begins with a shock: a hyper-stylized montage (scored hauntingly to Lesley Duncan’s “Love Story”) that intercuts Harper (Jessie Buckley) watching her husband (Paapa Essiedu) fall off the side of their building with shots of pleasant pastoral scenery as she drives out into the countryside. This rural trip is revealed to be a vacation—or perhaps more accurately, an escape—allowing her some space from the pressures of society as she reckons with her husband’s untimely demise. She flees to a cavernous, isolated mansion complete with more bedrooms than she needs—always a recipe for success in a horror movie!

Harper’s trip does not take long to morph into something more bizarre than a relaxing rural getaway. The first sign that things are amiss is the fact that every man in the locality has the exact same face. The actor Rory Kinnear is everywhere, appearing as the landlord, the barman, the local priest, and his horribly rude altar boy. Most disconcertingly, he is the nude man who begins following Harper while she is on a walk through the wilderness and who eventually enters her mansion’s garden, staring menacingly at her through the windows. The cops are called and quickly take him away, though this does little to stem Harper’s growing unease that things may not be as they seem.

It would be a disservice to prospective viewers to explain anything more about the plot of Men, both because its terrifying back half deserves to be experienced fresh and because it is tremendously difficult to describe in words the abstract, surrealist hellscape that it turns into. Men’s loose plot becomes more of a vehicle for thematic exploration and visual experimentation than an end in itself. It is in this way that Alex Garland’s fingerprints are all over Men: in his past work, most notably in Annihilation, the crux of much of the storytelling was nonverbal, relying more on specific imagery than exposition to advance his themes. It seems that Garland has here utilized the greater artistic freedom provided by his past success to double down on his surrealist tendencies, filling in even fewer details for the viewer and instead demanding that they parse each shot and each frame for meaning beyond what the plot provides on its own. Each shot poses new questions to the viewer. Why take the camera into a dead deer’s eye, and then creep out to show its decayed carcass? Why does the apple tree in the mansion’s garden suddenly and torrentially shed all of its fruit? Why, above all, is every man’s face the same?

Though such questions come at a stunning rate, answers do not follow as liberally. There is an argument that the abstraction that Garland indulges in is excessive, even to the point of rendering the film indigestible. Certain viewers may feel that the open-endedness of the film’s conclusion is a reflection not of immense depth in the filmmaking but instead of a shifting of the burden of interpretative responsibility away from the creators and onto the viewers. Such a response is far from unprecedented in recent years: Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! and Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things had similar degrees of abstraction and inspired frustration from viewers who found their open-endedness alienating.

I confess to being a member of the legion of detractors of those two films when they were released. I found that their tendencies to prize subtext over text led to narrative incoherence. Yet with Men, I relished the discomfort inherent in its inscrutability instead of shying away from it. The reason for this is not any fundamental difference in quality from Mother! and I’m Thinking of Ending Things so much as a growing awareness, on my part, of the lack of risk in many of the movies coming out of modern Hollywood. With studios desperately chasing the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s box office power, alienating the viewer has become an unforgivable sin of filmmaking, leading to anodyne cinema that treats the audience like petulant children, spoon-feeding them easy answers until they are satiated. Garland’s film gleefully refuses to provide any such easy answers. It treats its audience as adults and trusts them to interpret and respond to the film the way they want. Men is a testament above all to the power of film to not merely entertain, but challenge—to leave a viewer feeling uncertain, ambivalent, confused, and intellectually stimulated all at once. With such experiences becoming ever scarcer, films that accomplish such a feat ought to be cherished.