Saturday, 2 July 2022

Men (2022) - Movie Review

I love fucked-up movies. To me, there are few feelings I love more than when I’ve just finished watching a movie, and my first instinct is to scream “What the fuck did I just watch?!” while sporting a massive grin on my face. I’ve looked at quite a few films on this blog that have genuinely gotten that reaction out of me, like The Greasy Strangler, Malignant, Where The Dead Go To Die, and Titane, and the experiences I had watching them for the first time are memories I hold onto quite closely. But when the latest film by Alex Garland, whose last two films were certified sci-fi king hits, popped up in a cinema close(ish) to me, I can’t say I was expecting it to join that illustrious collection. But sure enough, here we are.

Before getting into the specifics of this thing, I gotta get into how the film looks first. It is gorgeous. Garland and DP Rob Hardy continue to be a champion team-up, furthering the trajectory from Ex Machina to Annihilation in letting the visuals do a lot of the talking. Whether it’s the insular cramp of the English townhouse that the story primarily takes place in, the luscious wide-open spaces of the countryside surrounding it, or just a shot of Jessie Buckley’s Harper smiling as she gets stuck in the middle of a sunshower, I just adore the frames in this thing. Right from the start, with a burnt-orange tinted shot of rain as it splashes on a balcony railing, I knew that the skill Garland had shown up to this point wasn’t being wasted.

And since I’ve already brought up Buckley, let’s get into the cast for this thing. I don’t know for certain, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she was casted here off the back of her work on I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, as her performance here involves a lot of the same discomfort and captive anxiety. Only here, she’s given far more direct agency, as while she’s being menaced and gaslit and all that other lovely stuff, there is no bending of the knee here. She is forthright and strong and, as portrayed by Buckley, another embodiment of Garland’s humanistic approach to characterisation that serves this film just as well as it did with his prior sci-fi ventures.

Then there’s Rory Kinnear, who plays… well, basically every single male character we see on-screen bar one. Yeah, it’s a proper Anomalisa situation, and credit to him for not only portraying all these different facets of what is essentially the same idea while still making each visage distinct, but also for being as game as he is for what this film puts him through as an actor. With the levels of body horror (the effects work for which might rival Possessor for sheer grotesquery) the production puts him through, this might be the best showcase of the man’s talent as an actor, and I say that as someone who hasn’t really paid much attention to his name prior to this. That’s likely to change.

As for the story, as bluntly presented by its title, a lot of what happens has to do with masculinity and, in particular, toxic masculinity. Now, I’ve written at length about this topic several times before on this blog, as it’s an area of gender politics that, as a man, I feel the need to address when it comes up. But while I’ve discussed before the aspect of toxicity when it comes to men and their interactions with other men, I don’t think I’ve gotten into the more focused-on part of that equation: Men interacting with women.

In lieu of a lengthy and likely-boring-the-reader-to-tears gender politics lesson, I’ll just say that toxic masculinity concerning the treatment of women depends on holding two diametrically-opposed ideas at the same time: That women are inherently subservient to men, as is their ‘rightful place’, and that anything and everything about a woman is subject to the whims and desires of men… while simultaneously being a corrupting force that will lead men to do ‘the wrong thing’. They are a thing to be possessed, and to be feared. Reckon that’s succinct enough for our purposes here, eh?

And through Kinnear’s numerous appearances here, we see various ways that that attitude can manifest between the sexes (and I’m specifying ‘sexes’ here because, with a lot of the imagery, the film’s fantasy logic works in strictly binary terms), ranging from supposedly well-meaning but just patronising, to full-blown ‘men are just mindless animals, therefore the wems are to blame for everything’. It’s incredibly lacking in subtlety or nuance, but as an increasingly-deranged look at the horror that is that toxicity, I think it works really well. It all leads up to a finale that really solidifies just how gross this male-centric worldview ultimately is, with the same parody of humanity being recycled over and over as this attitude is passed on, all under the pretence of maintaining the ‘natural order’. It is one of the most graphic things I’ve ever seen in a film, reviewed on here or otherwise, and seeing it on the big screen was a fucking ride.

But even then, that’s not really the ultimate point of the film. It’s the bedrock for a lot of what happens, but the story and its ultimate message are all about Harper and the trauma that led her to this hellscape in the first place. Put simply, she’s there because she blames herself for her husband’s suicide, largely because he threatened to do it in response to her wanting a divorce, and she wants to get away and recover from the event. It’s an idea part-and-parcel with that larger mistreatment, where any attempt to remove one’s self from such an unhealthy relationship gets warped into fuel for the instigator to declare himself to be the victim.

It’s also something in-line with films like Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, where that possessive and unhealthy relationship dynamic lasts far beyond the life of the person who created it, such is the way with trauma. As embodied by Harper, it boils down to a woman breaking free of her ex-husband’s vile influence, and accepting that his shitty actions are, indeed, his actions. Not something she should be harbour guilt for.

Now, as much as I like all of this, I’d still have to call this Alex Garland’s weakest directorial effort to date. The binary approach to sex definitely pulls it back a bit (for a story commenting on regressive ideas concerning gender, it ironically feels a bit behind the current conversation), as does the fact that ‘woman overcomes traumatic grief through fucked-up circumstances’ might as well be A24’s production tagline by this point, but the film craft shows a certain dip as well. Yeah, it looks and sounds amazing (the music by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury adds a lot to the larger story of Harper finding her voice again, as it were), but there’s still quite a bit of jank to be found here.

The recurring image of a naked and grime-encrusted Rory Kinnear standing around outside Harper’s house has some real Greasy Strangler vibes to it, which isn’t great for a film that’s meant to be taken seriously. And that’s not the only point where the tone goes askew, as Kinnear’s more affable portrayals here can cut into the tension of some scenes. There’s also the bluntness of the commentary, which can come across as insecure at times, as if Garland didn’t have a firm-enough grasp on what he wanted to say before saying it. After how confident his last two films came across, seeing him be in any way shaky about what he’s presenting is a bit concerning.

But even with that said, I can’t front: I had an absolute blast watching this. It maintains everything that initially made me take notice of Alex Garland as a filmmaker, Jessie Buckley is great in the lead, the sound design is magnificent, and I love its slow-burn build-up to a finale that is truly one for the history books. It’s a film much like mother!, where it’s likely to get highly divisive reactions, so recommendations are going to be a bit tricky. But for the sake of an experience that, love it or hate it, you’ll remember through the year to come, I’d have to say it’s worth checking out.

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