Before Alex Garland was a filmmaker, he worked as a novelist. His debut novel, The Beach, is a foundational Generation X text, while his follow-up, The Tesseract, had a dense, time-jumping plot you might expect from a Quentin Tarantino flick; both were turned into movies. These phases of his career should help Garland better understand the limits of each medium, which is ironic because his horror film Men unfolds like an unfinished short story adaptation. There is a strong premise and sense of atmosphere, yet thin characters and the unearned conclusion undermine the whole endeavor. Garland clearly leans into metaphor and allegory, as if to invite spirited debate among his audience, but his provocation is miscalculated: It can only work when you care about what happens.
Like Garland’s other films, Ex Machina and Annihilation, he again opts for a remote location with few characters. Jessie Buckley plays Harper, a young woman who leaves her London flat for a long holiday in a grand country house. After a brief, awkward tour with the bumbling caretaker (Rory Kinnear), she has the place to herself. She strolls the grounds attempting to relax, except something strange starts to happen. A nude man is stalking her, perhaps even trying to break in, and that’s not the most unsettling part. Kinnear also portrays this nude man, perhaps suggesting he is the caretaker’s brother, and then Kinnear also plays the male officer who visits after Harper rings the police. In fact, all the men in Men are played by Kinnear, except for Harper’s disturbed husband (Paapa Essiedu), who we only see in flashback.
Are all these men clones? Do they actually differ? And do they look similar only because we see them through Harper’s eyes? Garland doesn’t answer these questions, and instead focuses on how they chip at his hero’s sanity and sense of self. Each character played by Kinnear needles Harper, and at first, they are more passive-aggressive than outright hostile. Many of these scenes are effective, like when the nude man watches Harper in broad daylight but she doesn’t notice him, or when a vicar consoles her with disturbing advice and suggests she’s to blame for her husband’s violence. They unfold like vignettes of nightmare logic, and Kinnear varies his acting styles just enough so he unnerves Harper in several different ways.
Garland coasts on the suspension of disbelief, or perhaps the goodwill of his audience, because there is an expectation that his premise will somehow resolve in a satisfying way. Unfortunately, the final act cannot deliver on the promise of what precedes it. By the time Harper has to defend herself from the male intruders, Garland abandons ideas for clichés that genre fans have seen in countless home-invasion thrillers. There are a few interesting flourishes, like a wound Harper inflicts on the nude Kinnear that effectively gives him an extra appendage. Once again, Garland explores the transgressive possibilities of body horror, leading to a grotesque climax that reconfigures how we think about each character Kinnear plays. Garland’s imagery is surreal and primordial, but because he declines to show us what Harper thinks about it, we are unsure what to make of it.
Men draws from many influences to suggest significance that isn’t there. There are biblical allusions, like when Harper eats from an apple tree before she enters the country house. References to pagan rituals are also frequent, while the aforementioned body horror climax depicts birth and rebirth in arguably profane ways. There is a “kitchen sink” approach to all these seemingly unconnected motifs, and if Harper is meant to be the connecting tissue, the character is not specific or recognizably human enough. Buckley is a fine actor, although her performance here is more a collection of peculiarities. If the flashback scenes are an attempt to add some dimension, then Men becomes another metaphor for trauma that we have seen in way, way too many recent horror films. His House and The Night House handled similar material, but they benefit from a specificity that eludes Garland.
In our current movie landscape, Garland is a rare talent. He works almost exclusively in science fiction and horror, but more importantly he has the ambition and weight to push the genre into more cerebral territory. Men is a rare misstep from him—an attempt to engage our emotions in a visceral way that ultimately feels incomplete. Considering what Harper endures, you might expect the film would lean into a misandrist streak, ending with her finding satisfaction she desperately needs. By opting for something more oblique and ambiguous, Garland does not just fail his audience. He fails Harper, too.
Men opens in area theaters on Friday, May 20.