SPOILER ALERT: The following review contains spoilers.
In “Ex Machina” director Alex Garland’s latest, “Men,” the leaves are so green, the tone is so ominous, and the men are so … Rory Kinnear-y that audiences are all but guaranteed to leave this folk-horror bizart-house offering feeling disturbed, even if no two viewers can agree on what bothered them about it. There’s that shocker of an ending, of course, but we’ll postpone discussion of that till the penultimate paragraph of this review, so as not to spoil the fun — even if, by the time you see it, “Men” is already likely to be defined by its over-the-top finale.
Kinnear, who comes across as a chummy enough fellow — albeit one who might chase you into a back alley and murder you if given the chance — impressively embodies eight different characters: basically, all the men, plus one particularly creepy boy, in a rural English village. This thoroughly odd man-among-men (the most intimidating of whom lumbers through the woods, naked as Adam) serves as the movie’s “monster,” but not in any conventional sense. Whatever threat Kinnear’s manifold characters represent takes shape largely in our heads, put there by whatever life experience we’ve had with the various types he plays.
Meanwhile, “Men’s” damsel — who’s far too self-reliant to classify as being in distress — is played by Jessie Buckley. (After being dragged along for the ride in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” this movie puts her squarely in the driver’s seat.) The gifted actor could be Sally Hawkins’ saturnine kid sister, appearing here as unhappy-cum-unlucky Harper, who’s just weathered a traumatic breakup.
To illustrate the split, Garland opens the film with a splash of slo-mo surrealism, as Harper stares out the window and sees her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu), falling in slow motion, suspended among so many glistening drops of water. It’s raining men, and all that — though Garland and go-to composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow have a more sharpened sense of irony than that, using music to keep us off balance.
Few would fault Harper for fleeing London for some peace and quiet in the country, which is just what she does, renting a splendid old house where she hopes to clear her mind. But self-healing won’t come quite so easily. In time, what she’s running from will become more apparent via a series of pro-forma flashbacks, parceled out precisely on cue. A more nuanced screenwriter might have given us multiple vantages into her marriage, rather than fixating on this final argument and its aftermath, but Garland goes for the obvious: James “haunts” Harper’s present, the threat of his personality lurking in every subsequent man she meets.
It feels as if Garland should have cast Kinnear in James’ role as well, sorta-kinda the way Charlie Kaufman used Tom Noonan’s voice in “Anomalisa,” but maybe that would have created other logic/comprehension problems. Going for a walk one morning, Harper comes upon a long, dark tunnel, at the other end of which she spies a silhouette. In her shoes, a man might have continued walking. But a woman — and all the women in the audience — will endorse her decision to hightail it in the opposite direction.
Harper reaches another tunnel, this one bricked over. Garland doesn’t make it easy to imagine the geography of this space, but then, few if any familiar movie-watching rules apply. Harper finds her way back home, but nowhere feels “safe.” She’s on the phone with her best friend Riley (Gayle Rankin) when the second of Kinnear’s characters appears: the naked man. Audiences notice him before she does, lurking in the garden, behind Harper’s back. She calls the police, and a female officer (Sarah Twomey) appears. But later, in town, she learns from a male cop (a uniformed Kinnear) that they were obliged to release the stalker/streaker.
No matter where Harper turns, the threat of this man attacking her — or any of the other Kinnear characters’ microaggressions escalating into genuine danger — exists. As such, the whole town becomes an uncomfortable microcosm of the larger world, where she’s apparently at the mercy of men. Frustratingly, Garland gives us almost no clues into Harper’s life or personality, beyond the breakup, which makes it hard to judge whether she’s in any kind of danger from the local men. So we assume the worst.
Even the local church feels intimidating. There in front of the altar is an ancient baptismal font with two unsettling stone carvings: on one side, the Green Man (a contorted face erupting in leaves and branches); on the other, the Sheela-Na-Gig (a female figure exposing her vulva). What are these pre-Christian, likely pagan symbols doing in such a setting? Look closely, and you’ll find them all over England and Europe, their significance lost to time — although therein lies one of the movie’s key weaknesses.
Unless you’ve encountered these obscure icons before, in art history class or on a church/castle tour perhaps, Garland doesn’t do nearly enough to establish their significance. This shortcoming could’ve been easily fixed if he’d made Harper a researcher of some kind, capable of contextualizing the two sinister motifs before they come to life.
In an even stranger creative choice — and here we’ve reached serious spoiler territory — Garland renders all those Kinnear characters essentially harmless to Harper. “Pathetic” is the word he has used to describe them, though that intention isn’t necessarily clear, given the wild stunt he pulls in the climactic scene. Hiding in the house, Harper faces off against all the men she’s encountered thus far, one at a time yet obviously interrelated (by a common wound and a shared goal). Each man claws his way out of a graphic-yet-unconvincing CG vagina — a startling idea for which little preparation has been made. Takashi Miike got there first with his gonzo “Gozu,” wherein a woman gave birth to a full-size yakuza, but Garland escalates the freak factor in a major way.
This grand finale is so far beyond anything American audiences have seen (this side of David Cronenberg, at least) that cult status seems assured. But what it all means is far less certain — not so much ambiguous as unclear — in a high-minded film that has entrusted so much else to our imagination. Now, all of a sudden, Garland goes too far, such that you can’t help feeling, well, man-ipulated.