Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Alex Garland’s Men: The Culmination of His Concerns (for Better and for Worse)

(Alex Garland, UK, 2022, rated R, 100 minutes) 

Alex Garland is hardly the first screenwriter to transition to directing. 

More unusually, though, he started out as a novelist. His 1996 literary debut, The Beach, drew inspiration from his experience backpacking in Thailand. Aside from the brisk sales, which might have been enough to satisfy any young writer, he got even more mileage out of the book when Danny Boyle brought it to the big screen in 2000. Though John Hodge wrote the script, it marked the beginning of Garland's association with the director as he would go on to write 28 Days Later... and Sunshine before striking out on his own. 

After another novel and a combination of credited and uncredited work for other directors, his directorial debut, Ex Machina, arrived in 2014. The assured effort launched Garland as a genre filmmaker with an interest in and/or facility for science fiction and horror, vivid imagery, and unnerving electronic soundscapes (provided by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury). 

Garland's second feature, 2018's Annihilation, an adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer's Nebula-winning novel, and 2020's Devs, an original series created for FX, confirmed his interest in the mysteries of nature and the arrogance of patriarchy.

This brings us to Men, the least of his films, and yet unmistakably his. For better and for worse: it's an Alex Garland film through and through.

Just as Garland built Devs around a smart, competent woman trying to solve the mystery of her partner's disappearance, he introduces Harper (Irish actress Jessie Buckley, most recently of The Lost Daughter), some time after her husband's death. With the encouragement of her best friend, Riley (GLOW's Sheila the She-Wolf, Gayle Rankin), she plans to take a break from London--specifically the apartment complex from which James (I May Destroy You's Paapa Essiedu) fell--so she takes off for the countryside. 

It's worth noting that Natalie Portman's journey in Annihilation revolves around a mystery concerning her husband, played by Oscar Isaac, who previously appeared--to marvelous effect--in Ex Machina

Harper's trip is obviously a bad idea, though Garland tries to convince us otherwise. The holiday house owner, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear, currently playing a white nationalist on PBS's Ridley Road) is solicitous and the house is gorgeous--and not especially gloomy. For all that, though, it's isolated, too big for one lonely person, and the cell phone reception is spotty. Further, there's something…off about Geoffrey. His smiles are too broad and toothy, but he promises to leave Harper alone, and for the most part, he does. 

Harper sets out to explore the grounds around the house. It's a verdant area, preternaturally so. Once she reaches a tunnel deep in the forest, she yells into it, delighting in the ensuing echo. So, she yells again, and again, creating a cascade of echoes, like a chorus. It's a lovely, spooky moment.

The fun ends when she notices a figure hovering at the end of the tunnel, so she attempts to retrace her steps, but it proves easier said than done, since there's no clear path. En route, she spots a naked man watching from across a field. She shivers, keeps moving.

As she continues to explore her environs, strange things keep happening, all involving men, like a judgmental vicar and an unsympathetic cop, played by Kinnear with different hairpieces and prosthetics. The least convincing: a foul-mouthed nine-year-old with Kinnear's face digitally superimposed in the style of Nancy Marchand in The Sopranos. The creepiest: the naked fellow, a Green Man, who becomes an increasingly insidious and invasive presence. 

All the while, Harper replays moments with James in her mind. Clearly, her attempt to escape the past isn't working as planned. These moments are increasingly troubling, since James goes from begging her not to leave to threatening to kill himself if she follows through on her plan to divorce him. 

Towards the end, Garland quickens the pace to incorporate an extended, slasher film-type sequence followed by a shift into exceptionally bizarre body horror before returning, unsteadily, to some semblance of normality. 

Though the tech credits are up to his usual high standards, especially the set design, the whole thing feels undercooked. By now, I've seen most everything Jessie Buckley has done, and she isn't bad, but the script prevents her from feeling as engaging as Garland's other female characters, including Alicia Vikander's gynoid in Ex Machina--and she isn't even human. 

Paapa Essiedu, the film's only Black character, feels particularly ill-used, because Garland only depicts James in pathetic, manipulative mode. It's hard to understand what Harper ever saw in him, since the director never gives us a glimpse of better times. It's probably not his intention, but the lack of good memories suggests that Harper was never happy with James, making her less sympathetic (and emotionally stable) than intended.   

For Rory Kinnear, on the other hand, the film offers a chance for this celebrated Shakespearean actor to play

The sequence in which five of his characters converge in one location, the local pub, dazzles on a technical level, while also injecting some welcome humor into the increasingly dark proceedings. And there's no doubt that he's fearless. Aside from the nudity--Kinnear is exposed, physically, in a way that sets him apart from the other actors--he appears to be having a blast playing all of these twisted villagers.

In the end, this film that means to elevate women by depicting the ways men can make our lives difficult gives a man the best and showiest part.

Men opens nationwide on Friday, May 20, at the usual multiplexes. All images from A24, except Natalie Portman in Annihilation from Netflix.  

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