WE'RE JUST INNOCENT MEN
Director: Alex Garland
Screenplay: Alex Garland
Starring: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu
Review: David Stephens
From writing 28 Days Later to directing Annihilation, it's been clear that Alex Garland has an affinity with horror that spins from the brutal to the surreal. It's also often nature that provides the catalyst for the nasty stuff that can happen to protagonists in a movie. So when it was made known that he was writing and directing a project with A24 studios (who also brought us Midsommar, X, and Hereditary amongst many others), there was some keen interest from horror fans. So here is Men, a sort-of folk horror that has opened to generally good reviews but seems to be a "Marmite" film (or should that be "Men-mite"?). People either seem to love it or hate it. Now showing on cinema screens in both the UK and the USA, we took a look to see which side of the fence we were going to fall over into.
Harper Marlowe (a brilliant Jessie Buckley) arrives at an idyllic country house in a beautiful rural setting. She's rented the whole property to heal from a traumatic event, the details of which are gradually revealed by flashbacks and her own words. On arriving, she is greeted by the nice-but-dim country gent Geoffrey (an also brilliant Rory Kinnear). As she settles into the relaxing surroundings and starts to explore the area, she seems to awaken a supernatural force and some unwelcome attention from the males in the village… all of whom look remarkably similar.
If this were a book, it would be called "Women are from Venus, Men are … Whoa! WTF?!". It is essentially an undeniably weird and messed-up fairy tale or a folk horror with a theme. As has been "spoiled" by the majority of reviews so far, a certain member of the cast plays multiple roles (superbly, it must be said), which fits in with the overriding theme of the narrative. It all circles around the emotional conflict and contradictions that genders can have in relationships, as well as a reversal of the "original sin". Note the apple tree and reference to "forbidden fruit". It also explores the themes of overwhelming grief, guilt, and human nature in general. However, if that makes it sound all too Freudian and eye-rolling for a genre film, there's also physical violence, gory body horror, a whole raft of creepy sequences, and a spine-tingling soundtrack.
Unlike some movies (*cough*" mother!"*cough*), the lofty themes and metaphors don't overwhelm the general flow of the narrative or make the plot feel pointless. It helps that the scenes are beautifully filmed and full of vibrant colours (mostly green). The locations are marvellous, from spooky disused railway tunnels to overgrown barracks to rippling ponds, not forgetting the too-good-to-be-true dream cottage. It conjures up modern folk horror in a way that British films haven't captured for some time. Some scenes reflect how technology (smartphones) clashes with the pagan mythology, which provides a foundation for the weird occurrences. The use of sound is also well-used, with an echo created by Harper actually becoming part of the score during a later sequence and choral dirges used to great effect.
It helps that Buckley and Kinnear are so good as the leads. Harper is shown exhibiting the extremes of human emotion, from screaming in mental agony in a church to becoming childishly joyful at hearing the sound of thunder and feeling the rain. Buckley totally sells all of those moments with gusto. With that title, as you can imagine, some characters embody the worst traits of toxic masculinity, from being sexual predators to insincere saviours and childish bullies. It has to be said that some of this does feel a little heavy-handed and obvious, but that's kind of the point, to be honest.
Whatever you think of the thematic beats, it all comes to a head with the insane final act. The supernatural elements conjoin with extreme body horror that would have David Cronenberg spitting out his coffee and taking notes. From explicit close-ups of bisected limbs to … something that would be hard to explain without sounding insane. It culminates in an ending that feels like one of those old "make-your-choice" adventure books. Basically, you take away what you want from it. That lack of clarity has led to some backlash, but it actually feels appropriate to the tone and Harper's journey.
You have to applaud Garland for having the guts to go "way out there" and refusing to simply segue into a textbook slasher ending or suchlike. All in all, if you like eccentric British horror with something to say, doing it in a way that satisfies the average genre enthusiast, then this is it. Really well-made and with a stubborn, rebellious streak that just won't quit. It's like a longer episode of Inside No. 9, but with a bigger budget and better special effects. At least one of us is in the "love it" camp here, but even if you don't, at least it's something wonderfully brave and different in homegrown horror.