While Alex Garland has been a creator in Hollywood for a long time, he only began directing his own films in 2014 with Ex Machina. Since then, Garland has made a short yet distinctive directing career out of provocative sci-fi exploring the nature of our existence in an increasingly tech-driven world. Annihilation, Devs, and of course his debut film all juggle the ideas of identity, nature, and evolution. Another through-line of his first three projects has been a horror tinge. While each of the movies are more sci-fi than anything else, Garland has shown skill at putting his audiences on edge and assaulting their senses.
Men sees Garland leave behind the sci-fi trappings and delve more directly into supernatural horror. His first overtly horror effort still showcases his skill as a filmmaker, displaying his keen sense of how to blend sound and picture to dazzle and terrify the audience. Yet Men is also his weakest work, and despite years of rewriting, it feels half-baked as muddled metaphors dance and fall over the edge of ambiguity into something almost nonsensical.
This is a movie that one does not want to criticize. So many of Men‘s scenes feel like the purpose of cinema come to fruition. In the past, Garland has used discordant sound design and scores to disconcert the audience; the ending sequences of Annihilation are a prime example. Men has plenty of these moments, featuring another trademark Garland ending sequence that has to be seen and experienced. He pays homage to other surrealist sci-fi horror masters, with an especially heavy dose of David Cronenberg‘s body horror. Jessie Buckley singing into a wide open tunnel early in the film ends up reflected back into the score, as does the song “Love Song” by Lesley Duncan. These aural motifs come back in notable and creepy ways.
The two main actors in the film, Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear, both shine bright as well. Buckley has thin ground to walk in her performance, being both sympathetic and potentially stirring up suspicion, but she does it well. Her blend of fear, victimhood, and strength serves the character well. Kinnear has the more fun part, playing all of the male characters in the film aside from one. You can tell Kinnear is having a grand ol’ time, and he does well as the tormentor of Buckley in his various incarnations.
Yet this description hints at the deeper issues with the film. While it doesn’t take a genius to understand the film’s basic commentary (decrying toxic masculinity), Garland unfortunately fails to gather his threads and hints into something fully satisfying or coherent. He blends in Christian and pagan imagery, but the film never seems to make an effective metaphor with those ideas.
The last thirty minutes or so get truly wild, but by the time credits roll, you feel unsatisfied. This is not to say a film cannot be ambiguous or leave you with unanswered questions. One of this reviewer’s favorite films is Mulholland Dr. Yet Garland doesn’t pose the right questions, and he leaves certain ideas, such as the role of music in Buckley’s character, woefully underdeveloped.
The result is a film that, like all of Garland’s work, has memorable visuals and burrows uncomfortable feelings into your psyche. Yet while Ex Machina and Devs leave you wrestling with the horrible ramifications of AI and technology in our lives, and where Annihilation makes you ruminate on the fragile nature of life, Men leaves you feeling that everything was both overly obvious and overly ambiguous all at once. Garland folds reality on itself too many times while keeping his film too firmly planted in reality, so that the ambiguity frustrates instead of inspires. Garland should have let this idea gestate for a few more years to let it become the great film it could have been.