in Shocktober


Since I already railed against X’s title, I feel like I should expand my commentary to this year’s glut of horror movies with minimal, evocative titles. Many of my favorite horror movies this year — Nope, Barbarian, Prey, Morbius (just kidding) — have one word titles. Yet all of them convey much more meaning than that. “Nope” tells you this is going to be a story about a situation you don’t want anything to do with, and that it’s a story about people making mistakes, and it even plays on that trope about characters acting the opposite way audiences believe they would. But no title this year does as much work as Alex Garland’s Men. All it takes is three letters and we all know that this movie wants to say something about our times.

Some time after her husband’s suicide, Harper (Jessie Buckley) decides to take a two-week vacation in Cotson, an idyllic, small village a few hours outside London. She arrives at the beautiful manor she’s rented and plucks an apple from a tree before meeting landlord Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), a seemingly nice, if a bit awkward, bloke. He gets her situated and then heads out, leaving Harper alone to enjoy the country. As is tradition for movies these days, she makes a FaceTime call to her friend Riley (Gayle Rankin) and tucks in for the night. Do other people really make FaceTime calls all the time? I avoid calls of all sorts like the plague.

The next day, Harper goes for a stroll in the woods. It’s lush and green and peaceful, which seems to be exactly what she needs. Harper’s wandering leads her to an old railway tunnel, which she finds generates a pleasing echo. She wanders in and experiments with her echo, singing different tones in a way only a music major or a horror movie protagonist could. This alerts a naked man at the other end of the tunnel, who yelps and starts running toward Harper. She turns and runs and apparently escapes, but later the naked man appears outside the manor. Harper calls the police, who arrest the man. What she doesn’t seem to notice is that Geoffrey, the naked man, and the police officer who detained him, all look so goddamn like the same person. I would say to them “you want ice cream cone,” all of them say yes.

So yeah, that’s the flashiest gimmick Men has at its disposal: all the male parts (except one) are played by Rory Kinnear. It’s like a dialed-back version of Anomalisa… which was directed by Charlie Kaufman, who more recently made I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which also starred Jessie Buckley as a character in a bad relationship with a troubled dude. Connections! It’s mostly a fun gimmick, although I really don’t think it helps that one of the “men” is a child with Kinnear’s head CGI’ed on, Little Man style, in the same year that What We Do in the Shadows had baby Colin Robinson. But it does help add to the eeriness of Men, which continuously ramps up into a bizarre and surreal fervor by the film’s end.

My big takeaway from Men (besides “WHAT THE FUCK”) is that I think Alex Garland really wanted to make his own Midsommar. He made a movie about a woman in a bad relationship traveling to a seemingly beautiful, isolated location where she finds herself immersed in gruesome events that are all a big allegory for her liberation from that relationship. Garland replaces rural Sweden with rural England and pagan imagery with Christian imagery, but I think he was working with A24’s approved framework. But he doesn’t have the same brazenness as Ari Aster, relying on more conventional scares like Harper being followed at night. That is, until the ending, which is one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen. So while Men doesn’t live up to Midsommar (or Ex Machina and Annihilation, for that matter) it still stands out as a memorable horror experience for me in a year that had plenty of those.