Haunted by the death of her husband (Paapa Essiedu), Harper (Jesse Buckley) flees to recuperate in the village of Coston, England, a quiet town with a lush green forest. The land is captivating in its beauty and tranquility; it appears to be a perfect home, almost like the Garden of Eden.
But as soon as Harper bites a forbidden fruit in this garden, her paradise is interrupted by seemingly everyone in the area. This includes the landlord Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), who makes her feel a bit awkward as he shows around the house; a naked stalker who walks around her garden; a little boy who calls her a “stupid bitch; a cop who doesn’t believe her when she says she was threatened by the stalker; and a priest who hides his predatory interests behind his religious trappings.
Even though most viewers will hardly recognize that they are all Kinnear, he plays these men. You start to realize that these malevolent forces represent “Men.” These obvious and typical male archetypes slowly get under your skin and toy with your psyche.
Harper is also haunted by the forest — which is dark and menacing — and the abandoned railway tunnel which looks as if it were the gateway to hell. Director Alex Garland has established an unsettling feeling throughout the film. He understands the value of digging up and pointing to things that can’t be named.
Harper’s black husband James (Essiedu), died in a tragic fall. His death happened on the same day that Harper told him that she was forcing him to move out of their apartment after he struck her in the face. Harper had already told James that she had made up her mind to divorce him. Essiedu brings an intensity to the scene, painting a vivid picture of a relationship twisted by his emotional abuse and manipulation.
With these uncanny and bizarre events taking place, the downright creepy images get under the skin and prompt Harper’s emotional rollercoaster through her recollections of the nightmarish experience of her husband’s death. Harper may be afraid of these unusual circumstances, but she isn’t powerless.
As the story slowly unfolds, one realizes that “Men,” as in “human,” have reached some kind of breaking point; no matter how much technology has advanced, man’s basic nature stays the same. Even with the resurrection of spirits or the rebirth of one’s soul — which audiences see as zombie-like creatures who slowly become James in the flesh. When Harper comes face to face with a reborn James at the end, the only way to get rid of her torment is for her to let go her feelings for husband.
Buckley gives a top-notch performance throughout. Her expressive candor is almost painful to behold; she brings in her feelings of anger and unresolved grief. Kinnear enters uncharted territory, representing the malevolent elements of humankind, and he leaves us with an unsettled feeling.
“Men” offers insightful observations throughout the film about devastating separation, irreparable sorrow, a piercing sense of guilt, toxic masculinity, and the emerging expression of female empowerment.
Garland — the writer/director of “Ex-Machina” and “Annihilation” — paved his way by crafting a signature approach to creating striking visuals and by testing to the limit our individual interpretation of his work. He has never relied on a conventional filmmaking approach, and has resisted being pinned down to making films in a certain way. Garland doesn’t care about explaining the intent of the film, but if you can engage with a hint of biblical terms and his view of the complexity of human nature, it is a rewarding journey.
Here’s the trailer of the film.