Men (Review)

A horror film where the antagonist is the patriarchy is not necessarily a novel concept, at least as subtext, but the bluntness of Men is certainly very different. Our protagonist, Harper (Jessie Buckley) is a victim of abuse, specifically abuse by a male in a way that is facilitated by patriarchal dynamics. Her discomfort in an androcentric world is the film’s key discomfort, is is the starting point for all its horror imagery. Fundamentally, Men is a film where externality is used to chronicle internality, a work of narrative ambiguity aimed at capturing a subjective sense of discomfort and terror.

In description, Men is a lot better of a film than it actually is. Its ideas are apparent from the start and very little is actually done with them; in fact, by the end, the film feels like it has tied itself in a knot, a mess of contradictions that don’t push beyond the original assertion. This film knows that the patriarchy is a problem, it knows that the idea of ‘men’, and the toxic possibilities of masculinity, overwhelms any individual man. Masculinity as a patriarchal force is separate thing to any one person who identifies as male (but is often enforced by them), and this film replicates that by casting Rory Kinnear as every new man that Harper meets. Because every man is a reminder of the patriarchy, and is potentially emboldened by it. It is an expression of the Platonic form, that philosophical idea that every thing contains its very essence, the soul that makes it what it is. Therefore, every man can be (or is) the patriarchy.

Once again, in description, it works. In execution, little interesting is done with it. The film mopes around for far too long, existing in pedestrian spaces of known imagery. It is a lot of contrived suspense and familiar micro-arcs. It is knowingly playing with stock archetypes but then doesn’t do enough with them to make this self-awareness additive. If anything, the film is evidence for the existence of the male gaze as a narrative perspective, not just as a leering angle. Garland is our director and writer, our cinematographer, Rob Hardy, is also male. All in all, it is a very male understanding of living as a woman. This is not to say that men haven’t made great films about the female experience, it is more to say that they usually are not best placed to do so. And Men is evidence of this. The film just isn’t very good at evoking anything overly specific, or of pushing its ideas to anywhere that will give the audience much to chew on.

I, of course, as a man, have no actual understanding of the feminine experience. However, films have taken me beyond my lived understanding and made me confront things unfamiliar to me, they have made me look at the world through different eyes and have forced me to contend with wider realities. Men does not do this. It knows that patriarchal dynamics are a problem and is just that observation for 100 minutes. The idea, premise even, to actual movie ratio is so incredibly thin. At every point, Men feels so flimsy, so only ever symbolism for the sake of symbolism that you feel like, if you were to touch it, it would just collapse. Yes, the exterior reality is sacrificed for chronicling interior realities, but when little is actually unearthed inside, the lack of a cogent outside starts to sting.

Men is a film of empty facades, of pieces blatantly put together to articulate very little. The visuals have moments, but these moments feel very familiar, a recycling of known horror imagery in a way that makes the film merely derivative of better features. There is an interesting visual sequence towards the end, that specifically invokes an ’80s horror film I love but, frankly, isn’t as interesting as that work. This is probably the film’s strongest sequence; however, it is just too little too late. It finds a mode that is more ambitious and promising, does nothing with it and relegates it to the final few minutes. Again, there just isn’t much movie here. And, outside of some decent enough known imagery, there’s a roughness to the overall aesthetic. There isn’t enough contrast to the visuals in a way that makes it muddled or, often, just uninteresting. But, this at least circles back to the rest of the film: it all feels half-baked, a rough draft of something that became a film by mistake.

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