July 2022

Arts & Letters

Fear as folk: ‘Men’

By Shane Danielsen
Writer/director Alex Garland’s latest film is an unsubtle but ambitious pastoral horror, mixing the Christian with the classical

In the aftermath of trauma, Harper (Jessie Buckley) flees London for the countryside – specifically, an Elizabethan manor house in a village in Hertfordshire, which she sublets for probably a little more than she can comfortably afford. Bluff and red-cheeked, the owner walks her through the property, explaining its history and pointing out its comforts. “You don’t have to lock your door around here,” he tells her cheerily – a line that should perturb any halfway sensible soul.

But for all this apparent congeniality, there’s something faintly unsettling about her host. Like the way his eyes go cold when she admits to having taken an apple from the tree in his garden. He recovers quickly (“I’m joking,” he insists). But his gaze doesn’t soften. 

He’s the first problematic man. The second, glimpsed first in the distance as she’s walking, and then, a little later, in the back garden, is completely naked, and very much resembles a statue by the sculptor Antony Gormley; Harper, understandably, is distressed by his presence. Others follow: a local policeman, a publican, an Anglican priest, even an especially noxious little boy. And every one of them is played by the same actor, the very fine Rory Kinnear.

Men is not subtle, but it is (mostly) effective, distinguished by its writer Alex Garland’s elegant direction, by its welcome unwillingness to explain its mysteries and, above all, by the performances of its leads, two of my favourite actors working right now. Most of Kinnear’s best work to date has been on stage or on television: as the Creature in Penny Dreadful, as a quietly determined journalist in Southcliffe, and as a British prime minister forced by kidnappers to fuck a pig in “The National Anthem”, the first (and some would say finest) episode of Black Mirror. It’s satisfying to see him in a film role – or roles, more correctly – that allows him to demonstrate the formidable breadth of his talent.

Buckley, meanwhile, is so good, such an uncommonly gifted actor, that the first time you see her you wake from a sort of trance, jolted from the spell of mere proficiency. Her choices are instinctive and unerring, and her range astonishing. To go from the foul-mouthed Glaswegian country singer of Wild Rose to the anguished Russian wife of Chernobyl, or the demented Midwestern nurse in season four of Fargo, a wind-up doll of pure malice, suggests both a rich interior life and a Bowie-level capacity for reinvention. She was nominated for an Academy Award this year, for her performance in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, and should have won it; no one else in the category came close.

So, is Men a horror movie? Well, that rather depends on what you mean by horror, a category for which too many of its makers have too often felt compelled to apologise. A curious phenomenon, over the past decade or so, has been the rise of “elevated horror”, a term not only condescending, in a priggish we’re-better-than-this kind of way, but also a contradiction in terms, since the act of ennobling the genre runs counter to the very impulses that fuel it. That said, it’s a descriptor that Men, handsomely made and freighted with Big Themes, mostly fits.

It’s not altogether surprising, therefore, to find A24’s logo at the start, since that company has become more or less synonymous with this kind of movie. Hereditary, The Witch, Saint Maud… all successful, to varying degrees, and all helping to bring horror cinema closer to the commercial mainstream. (While at the same time, building a fanboy enthusiasm for the brand. Increasingly, at film festivals and premieres you see slim young men sporting A24 T-shirts, a choice that strikes me as about as determinedly uncool as wearing a band’s own merch to their gig.) 

More than a few dissenting voices, however, have complained that the resulting films are neither sufficiently elevated nor properly horrific, and they have a point, since most of the best examples of the form assiduously resist such gentrification. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is perhaps the quintessential modern horror movie, the urtext for much of what followed, and even now, almost half a century since it was made, it retains the sordid, repellent air of something genuinely transgressive. Like an objet maudit, something uncovered amid refuse and hauled out into the light, it stains everything it touches. (One could say the same for most of the great horror films of the past few decades: Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs, Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers, Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Evans’ “Safe Haven” segment from V/H/S/2.)

Men doesn’t quite achieve those heights, though in its defence it never really intends to. It certainly leans hard, in its final act, into body-horror, via some prosthetic effects that, while impressive, proved for me the least compelling parts of the story. But for the most part it’s what I call a “nightmare of reason” film, about the sudden and total upending of established order, applied without motive or explanation. 

Certain viewers, craving clarity, will find this infuriating; for me, it gets to the heart of what is truly frightening. Not blood and guts – that’s just set-dressing – nor gratuitous acts of sadism or violence. But simply, awful things happening without apparent cause or the possibility of reprieve. It’s about implication, conspiracy and chaos, and with it the tacit acknowledgement of our helplessness in the face of vaster, cosmic forces. It’s why Robert Aickman is a greater horror writer than Stephen King, why David Lynch is scarier than… well, just about anyone, and why H.P. Lovecraft’s power endures, despite the grey porridge of his prose-style. 

It’s also why so much modern-day horror, in movies and on TV, feels so piss-weak. In dutifully outlining every backstory and clarifying every motivation, its makers eliminate the sense of the inexplicable, and, with it, dispel whatever menace they’re hoping to evoke. As the author Ken Kesey once put it, “The answer is never the answer. What’s really interesting is the mystery.”

To his credit, Garland understands this. And while he’s not immune to conventional jump-scares – a weak Facetime signal, on Harper’s smartphone, flashes images reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s screaming popes – he also knows that few things are quite as terrifying as an unknown figure, at a distance, suddenly starting to run right at you. The primal, lizard-brain panic it triggers.

Where he goes astray, I think – just a little – is in mixing his allusions. For much of Men, the film hews to a peculiarly British strand of pastoral horror, a mistrust of the rural that stretches from Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) all the way to Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011), and The League of Gentlemen and Inside No. 9 on TV. There’s a dreamy, almost hallucinogenic quality to scenes of Harper walking through the countryside, colour-corrected so that the leaves and moss are a bilious pea-green, the sky above a dull, featureless grey.

From the first, folk-inflected strains of Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s score, we’re primed for something in that tradition, the friction between England’s Protestant present and its darker, pagan past. Sure enough, the baptismal font at the local church displays carvings of a sheela-na-gig and the Green Man, and before long the naked intruder Harper sees undergoes a sort of metamorphosis to resemble the latter, an animal-vegetable hybrid that recalls Garland’s previous film, the flawed, fascinating sci-fi drama Annihilation.

Eventually, after gaslighting Harper about her reasons for coming to the village, the priest corners her in a room of the house, where he confesses his fascination with her. “I have pictured you,” he breathes, “legs open, vagina open … I have decided that you are an expert in carnality.” (The word “decided” being key here.)

And then, to her surprise, he recites some lines from Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan”:

A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower

And Agamemnon dead.

“What are you?” Harper demands, and the priest stares back at her for a long moment. Does she really not know? “The swan,” he replies calmly. For those who remember their Yeats, it serves to make his/their intentions crystal clear. In Greek mythology, the swan is Zeus, assuming the form of an animal in order to impregnate Leda. And that act of rape, fusing the human and the divine, is a kind of annunciation, signalling not only the fall of Troy but the arrival of an entire epoch of destruction.

This is ambitious, admirably literate stuff, however the reference sits uneasily with the intense Englishness of the rest. Garland’s metaphors begin to feel muddled, as, for that matter, does the resolution of Harper’s flashbacks, revealing the source of her trauma (about which I’ve said nothing, for fear of spoilers). This broader narrative framework is necessary: without it, Men’s succession of microaggressions would seem less supernatural than simply a catalogue of quotidian abuses. The incipient violence underlining many social encounters, the belligerence cloaked in pleas for love and understanding – most women would say they experience those kinds of things routinely. It’s a horror movie, sure, but of a depressingly mundane kind. 

Ultimately, though, the presiding impulse here is not classical but Christian, with all the weight of condemnation that implies. Harper’s predicament might be an extraordinary one, but the source of blame is all too clear. She asked for it. She ate that apple.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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