Possibly the most over-indulgent film by Alex Garland yet…
When a woman’s husband kills himself, she rents out an old manor in the English countryside to escape the haunting memories. However, the town doesn’t seem to be all as it appears, and her escape might be taking a completely different route.
Alex Garland is something of a critical success these days. His early career penning the scripts for Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and 28 Days Later, to more recent writer/director roles on exclusive projects such as Ex Machina and Netflix’s Annihilation. But his work can be on the strange side, often mixing horror and science fiction.
2022’s Men is perhaps too indulgent on his part…
If you want to go into this film blind, or as blind as the trailer provides you, then be warned this review will explain and discuss themes and backstory that the film itself does not. Consider a short opinion on the film has: uncomfortable, wayward, and not Garland’s best.
Jessie Buckley plays Harper, a haunted young woman who is looking for escapism in the countryside. She meets the owner of the old house, Geoffrey, (Rory Kinnear) who seems a peculiar sort but ultimately harmless. Alone, Harper explores the town and surrounding woodland, when a stranger emerges from the forest and begins to follow her…
The film is, as expected from Garland, a slow paced experience. Harper’s exploration of her surroundings is meandering and peaceful. The natural beauty around her, the lush greens of spring are inviting compared to the tungsten-lamp orange of her nightmarish flashbacks. There is a sense of peace and tranquillity, off-set by an undercurrent of something approaching. This might not be to everyone’s tastes; it is more similar to Annihilation, which was a Netflix exclusive and perhaps not seen by cinema audiences.
What follows is a weirder and weirder experience. Harper’s stalker, a naked man riddled with cuts and thorns, terrorises her tranquillity, while the townspeople… all of them men, are uncannily similar in appearance, and are all passively aggressive to her. Her story of her husband’s suicide is met on either deaf ears or with the suggestion that she drove her husband into the act.
The mythology of the story rears its head eventually. The film riffing off the folklore of the “Green Man”; a deity or spiritual entity that has no clear origin, but is believed to represent rebirth, spring, death and life. In modern theories, he is also a bridge between Pagan and Christian belief systems, as the Green Man appears in many Christian sites for unknown reasons.
The entity stalking Harper, and indeed, the townsfolk, are in league with the Green Man, and Harper is the target.
Now here comes the rub. The film plays its cards very close to its chest, and the metaphors get muddy real fast. The Green Man is not inherently a villain (although perhaps the disharmony between religions might colour him as a violent, wild creature) and having it as a monster in a movie seems misguided and, at times, almost comical.
The film’s conclusion is also aggravatingly vague; having the audience determine for themselves how Harper’s “rebirth” came to pass. Violently, and therefore proving she was always the aggressor, or in forgiveness, which weirdly validates an earlier character’s statement that she should forgive someone abusing her. Perhaps neither, perhaps it is more simplistic than that, and she merely put her traumas behind her?
The discomfort felt in the film wasn’t just from the visuals, which do go extremely far in the third act, but also this unsettling misfire of metaphors. In some ways the film does a disservice to the Green Man myth, which is certainly old and nebulous, but this representation feels ugly and misleading.
While the theme of rebirth is justified and wholly welcome, the execution of such a theme, mixed with horror tropes (gore, rape, jump scares… poor phone signal) and weird commentary on the genders, makes the whole film an unhinged experience. The performances on show are very good, from both Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear.
This is by far Garland’s least affecting story so far, and doesn’t hold a candle to the likes of Ex Machina or Annihilation, which both are visually impressive and also intelligently written.