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► Men is in UK cinemas from 27 May.

The first image of writer-director Alex Garland’s Men is rain falling on the balcony of a Thameside flat, catching sunlight so the drops appear to be molten metal or dragon’s blood. Then Harper (Jessie Buckley) stands in her front room, face bloodied, and meets the gaze of her husband James (Paapa Essiedu), who is falling in slow motion past her window. Even as Harper is pulled back time and again to this moment, the story’s present finds her trying to move on by taking a break by herself in the countryside. Of course, as a creepy vicar tells her, she can’t really get away because she’s haunted.

The structure is typical of a strand of upscale ghost story or horror film – Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist – in which troubled couples are trapped by psychic ripples caused by the deaths of their children. In Men, however, the big bang of this enclosed universe is the death of a marriage (and a husband). Though Harper is repeatedly told she ought to feel grief and guilt, her real problem seems to be that James isn’t in fact gone. It seems likely that he’s taken drastic action on the principle that a widow can’t divorce a ghost.

Rory Kinnear as Geoffrey with Buckley in Men

Arriving at the old, remote Cotson Manor, Harper is shown around by the owner, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) – odd teeth and broken veins around his nose, ‘very country’. Deceptively courteous, sympathetic and a bit sad (“‘You have the air of a failed military man’ – my father told me that, I was seven years old”), he verges on the sort of grotesque found in The League of Gentlemen or Inside No. 9. When she goes for a walk along a disused railway line in nearby woods, Harper choruses herself in an echoing tunnel but is spooked by a male presence, a bald, naked “care in the community type” who turns up in the manor garden and has to be removed by the police.

The intruder and the policeman are also played by Kinnear, who almost matches Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets for number of guises worn (though, unlike Guinness, all his characters are male). In a churchyard, Harper encounters a nasty little boy who hides Kinnear’s face – an uncanny valley effect, real-looking but wrong on a child’s body – behind a Marilyn Monroe mask, and the lank-haired vicar, who concurs with the dead husband that the whole mess is the woman’s fault.

Buckley with Rory Kinnear in Men

Essiedu – Black, bearded, intense, direct – and Kinnear – white, clean-shaven, playfully sinister, evasive – aren’t quite playing the same man, but present a living rebuke to the #notallmen hashtag. From Harper’s point of view, James becomes all men, or hides beneath the faces of all men. Kinnear’s incarnations start to display injuries James suffered in his fall, which may not have been the suicide he threatened but an accident as he tried to climb down from the balcony above to get back into the flat Harper ejected him from.

The most gruesome wound – a bifurcated hand – is shown being carved in excruciating detail, then becomes an alien-like appendage Kinnear’s characters use to grip Harper’s neck. This is a preliminary to a last-reel orgy of hard-to-describe spectacular effects which evoke the transformational transgressions of David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979), John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) or Brian Yuzna’s Society (1989) – a process of death, renewal, parturition and menace, without input from a woman.

Buckley with Paapa Essiedu as James in Men

A film in which encounters, moods and images illustrate a thesis, Men is harder to pin down to a synopsis than, say, Get Out or The Babadook, which provide keys to decipher what’s happening onscreen. Like Garland’s Ex Machina (2014) and Annihilation (2018), this uses genre to ponder gender. Garland has previously stuck to science fiction, but here ventures very effectively into horror. This is a lady-in-peril home-invasion movie, with Buckley (excellent in the reactive role) wielding a kitchen knife against progressively more startling, violent males who trespass on her (rented) territory.

It’s also an exercise in folk horror, offering a deep-focus walk in the woods that contrasts with Ben Wheatley’s more cosmic In the Earth: ancient pagan figures (the Green Man, the Sheela-na-gig) adorn the font of Cotson’s church, while beautiful, threatening wet green landscape forms a backdrop for a primal drama of men and woman.

Sight and Sound, Summer 2022

Sight and Sound celebrates its 90th anniversary in style. Plus: the Cannes bulletin, Pedro Almodóvar, Ukrainian cinema, The Innocents and Edgar Wright interviewing Daniels.

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Originally published: 23 May 2022