Alex Garland’s latest project wants to be a social thriller for the ages; a Get Out, for women. It almost succeeds.
Awesome Jessie Buckley is immediately intriguing as heroine Harper. Following the brutal death of her estranged, mentally unwell husband James (Paapa Essiedu) in London, Harper seeks refuge in a gorgeous rented house in a pretty country village.
The house has an unctuous and patronising owner, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear). Harper sidesteps his intrusive questions and seems defiantly amused by his old-fashioned ways (in a typical exchange, Geoffrey’s face performs a triple salchow of embarrassment when broaching the issue of tampons and toilets). Finally, Harper gets time for a walk by herself, and strides confidently through fields and pastures. Finding a tunnel, she starts singing her name, entranced by the way the uncanny echoes transform the word “Harper” into a song. It’s one of the sweetest, oddest, most cathartic sequences I’ve seen in any film this decade. When a menacing figure appears at the end of the tunnel, it’s truly gutting.
Turns out the village is damned. It only contains one other woman and the rest of the natives (all played by Kinnear; flexible as a virus and clearly a huge fan of The League of Gentlemen) have a spooky glint in their unnervingly identical eyes. The local priest in particular, seems to know a lot about Harper and the fact that her desire for a divorce may have triggered James’ death.
Here’s what’s disappointing. At exactly the point where the story should become unbearably tense, it starts to unravel.
Compare and contrast it with the aforementioned Get Out. Jordan Peele’s masterpiece is full of surreal events, but the basic premise is logical. The black hero winds up in a dangerous situation because he trusts his white girlfriend, who’s untrustworthy. But there’s no plausible explanation offered as to why a random place, that Harper chooses to go to, should turn out to be a premier breeding ground for toxic masculinity. Unless, that is, her guilt, in relation to James, has the power to shape what she’s experiencing (if the priest is a figment of her imagination, it makes sense that he’s so well-informed; it also explains why she isn’t instantly spooked by his physical similarity to Geoffrey).
In other words, the plot only hangs together if Harper’s foes are all in her head. Yet the film is laced with clues that the locals are a real threat.
Is Men about madness or misogyny? Garland can’t decide. Confusing rather than subtle, the film’s second half is also emotionally underwhelming. There’s a CGI sequence towards the end, which is visually stunning and nothing else.
That said, even if Garland doesn’t quite get a grip on the horrible realities facing those born with vaginas – femicide rates on the rise; witch-trials replaced by Tiktok bitch-trials – at least he’s trying. Via Men, he tweaks Tammy Wynette’s famous anthem. Yes, it’s hard to be a woman. And it’s also OK not to stand by your man.
100mins, cert 15
In cinemas from June 1