Hello kweens and kings. This is a review for MEN. I forgot I wrote this review. I wish I forgot this movie, but you’re getting reviewed men. Men is a… film… directed by Alex Garland. Garland is mostly known for his directorial debut the science fiction thriller Ex Machina. Some people may have seen his follow-up film Annihilation or the Hulu miniseries Devs. Garland has made his name in the science fiction genre and Men is his first true effort outside of his comfort zone.
I really did not like this movie at all – which is saying a lot because I think my love for Garland’s work made me like the film more than I really should have… but it still wasn’t salvageable. I want to talk about two things with this movie. I want to talk about why I think Alex Garland made it and I want to talk about the film’s inability to provide any value.
Before Men came out, I would’ve told you Alex Garland is my favorite filmmaker working today. Garland started as a writer – penning scripts for films like Sunshine, 28 Days Later, and Dredd – in fact some people claim Garland actually directed Dredd. That may have been what gave him the confidence to direct his first film Ex Machina in 2015. As a writer/director, Garland has always gravitated toward going deeper with his subject material. He rarely depicts fictional events as is without a sense of import placed upon them. Garland always weaves into his stories a glimpse of existential insight because his stories have always been about the big uncertain calamites of life. Sunshine is about a ship sent to restart the sun before it goes supernova and wipes out all known civilization; Ex Machina is about the nature of consciousness; Annihilation is about humanity’s biological predisposition to self-destruct, and Devs is about the dynamic between determinism and free will. These are the brainy philosophical conversations underlying all of his films that otherwise follow fairly straight forward stories. Garland has said he feels his obligation to the world is to bring those conversations to ordinary people because normal people should be engaged in these conversations but they’re often too theoretical – resulting in these conversations being sequestered to the highly educated. Garland describes his body of work as a layman attempting to provide an approachable gateway for other laypeople on the most important topics of our era.
With this context, you can understand why I find Garland the most interesting filmmaker working today, and he has become even more engaging as he’s honed his craft for filmmaking. He began as a writer, so unsurprisingly his earlier work was very writing oriented. Ex Machina was practically a play, but for his follow-up projects Garland has said he challenged himself to do the complete opposite of the work he just completed. Ex Machina was an original script, with a handful of actors, in a largely pedestrian and irrelevant location whereas his follow-up Annihilation was an adaptation of a book, supported by an ensemble cast, where the location was pivotal to the story. Annihilation was also a significantly more visual film. The best parts of that movie had no dialogue at all specifically the terrifying bear scene and the special-effect laden climax which remains one of my favorite moments in film. These examples show Garland wasn’t merely getting better at photography – framing more beautiful compositions in stilted scenes – he was really embracing all the tools available for filmmakers and proving he could find success. This is especially true for Devs – a miniseries I think gets a bad reputation because of its overtly depressing tone and disappointing ending – but it really shows Garland in his best form as an artist. With 10 episodes of content, that show balanced cerebral musings with avant garde montage sequences and other impressive filmic techniques. Devs was his last project and as inventive as it was, it was clear Garland was still relying on his writing chops and affinity for science fiction and highly philosophical narratives. So now we have Men, a project that is again unlike anything Garland has made before. There are no existential questions, there isn’t a significant amount of dialogue, and it is a far more visual experience than his past works. Men is also unlike anything Garland has made before because it is uniquely terrible.
Men follows the story of Harper Marlowe – a woman who recently had a domestic dispute with her husband and comes alone to the countryside to take her mind off it all. She rents a cottage villa maintained by an overly friendly attendant, but she mostly spends her time alone enjoying the surrounding wilderness and trails. Her idyllic time away is disrupted when she comes across a strange man in the wilderness who follows her back to the villa and torments her in different ways. Most of this movie is Harper having strange interactions with different men who are all predictably unhelpful or outright creepy. It’s worth mentioning here all the male characters – with the exception of Harper’s husband – are played by the same actor Rory Kinnear with different costume and make up design.
Why Alex Garland Made This Movie
I mentioned in the introduction I feel I am predisposed to like Men more than most people and that’s because I believe I understand Garland’s motivations for wanting to make this film. Garland has relied on his dialogue and brainy concepts his entire career, so like many writer/directors he now feels self-conscious he’s not a “real filmmaker.” The artform is no stranger to writer/directors attempting to compensate for their non-visual strengths by taking on a project distinctly visual and lacking their typical hallmarks. For what it’s worth, these projects usually turn out well for everyone. My favorite example of this is when Joss Whedon grew self-conscious about Buffy the Vampire Slayer being known as “a show carried by the writing” so he made an episode where everyone loses their voice. Ironically, this episode went on to win Best Writing accolades in the awards circuit after release. That example is from television, but we’ve seen it in film too. Quentin Tarantino took on Kill Bill to challenge himself to make a competent action film. Christopher Nolan made Dunkirk for similar reasons. And now we have Alex Garland making Men to prove he can do it too. Which is to say, if you thought Men would be a typical Alex Garland film but focused on cultural issues like the relationship between men and women, I think you’ll be disappointed.
Almost all of this movie relies on what I refer to as the “filmic language” – a combination of the visuals, tone, dramatic tension, and occasionally sound design to convey a story through filmic techniques such as framing, editing and montage, actor performances, and etc. There are movies that excel at filmic storytelling and when you discover them for the first time it feels like you’ve unlocked a secret about the artform. Watching Marvel movies your whole life where every action is painstakingly set up and described to the audience through exposition then seeing a more visual action film like Mad Max Fury Road can be awe-inducing. It’s like listening to music written in 4 by 4 your whole life then discovering irregular time signatures exist – and maybe you found a song that changes time signatures halfway. It’s a visceral eureka moment where you realize even though you’ve spent so much time enjoying the artform — you still need to uncover everything it can do. I can understand why writing-oriented filmmakers feel inadequate after seeing these movies, even if their work is generally better received amongst general audiences. I think this sense of inadequacy is what drove Garland to challenge himself with this project and in some ways he was successful.
Men has an early success when Harper goes for a walk and discovers an old tunnel – this is the scene we see in the trailer. Harper plays with the echoes of the tunnel by stacking different harmonies of her voice to create this haunting soundscape. The sound design effectively pairs with the vaguely creepy setting of a dark tunnel in the forest. This kind of sequence is a testament to Garland’s strength as a filmmaker because the scene is engaging specifically for all the reasons Garland films typically are not. There is no dialogue. There is no philosophy to consider. There are no complex characters interacting in a way that invites analysis of their true intentions. This is a sequence supported solely by the strength of the filmic language. In this scene we see Harper enjoy a reprieve from her life despite being literally engulfed in darkness. That is the gist of Men’s premise in a single sentence and Garland does a fantastic job capitalizing on the film’s concept in this sequence. This scene also perfectly lands its conclusion by ending the sequence with an introduction to the central antagonist of the story. Even this introduction is reliant on filmic elements. We don’t see the antagonist’s face, or understand what they are, we feel it in the visuals and the sound design this is an unwanted presence that is now barreling toward our main character. If there is anything to salvage from Men, it is this scene.
I imagine the goal of Men was to string together a collection of these types of scenes to achieve the type of film Alex Garland thinks he should be making – one that is wholly visual and intuitive for the audience. Of course, the problem is this type of filmmaking is it is a very different skillset from the one he’s mastered over the course of his entire career. It may be a more pure and honest version of filmmaking, but there’s no reason to devalue your own strengths in favor of someone else’s. If you have a style that works, you should innovate within it – as Garland has done in his past work like Annihilation and Devs. The problem with Men is – despite its intentions – it isn’t notably more visual than Garland’s previous work and his decision to minimize what he does well makes a lot of this film at best boring and at worst completely incomprehensible.
The sequence I just detailed is perhaps one of the last moments in the film that can be understood in simple terms. Harper goes for a walk, runs into a creepy dude, and runs away. Everything after that begins to introduce overly metaphorical or allegorical storytelling, which is where this movie lost me. I’d go further and say that’s where this movie lost everyone.
I’ve made the decision not to “spoil” this film by breaking down scenes that I thought were especially bad, but if there’s one thing you need to take away from my review it is the following. My reason for disliking Men has nothing to do with what it wants to say. This movie is not going to be a footnote in the culture war because it lays out a brutal takedown of toxic men. My reason for disliking Men is simply… because it is a bad movie. It is purposefully obtuse and imprecise. It is not as if I found the “message” of the film to be so insulting I turned against it. What I found insulting was I wasted so much time on a movie so clearly up its own ass.
It may be a meaningful point of comparison for some people watching this to note Men has been described as Alex Garland making the “Mother!” of his career. Since I took so long to publish this video I actually just talked about Mother! in the review of The Whale which just went up so sorry if I sound like a broken record here. Mother! is a horror film directed by Darren Aronofsky and was largely derided as being unintelligible. I haven’t seen the film myself, so I can’t share my opinion. However, Aronofsky is a great example of how filmic storytelling isn’t necessarily better than other forms of filmmaking. Aronofsky has some great movies like Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, but he also makes bullshit like The Fountain. The Fountain is a great example of how filmic storytelling can go bad. It happens when these movies rely on “interpretation” to provide their value. The Fountain and Mother! apparently make sense if you are deeply familiar with Christian theology and other religious texts, but if you’re not then those movies are impenetrable. And don’t get me wrong, I think there’s a place for art that requires some background understanding of major cultural influences like the Bible. However, there are countless examples of films that delight in visual or referential storytelling without losing their audience. Synecdoche New York or Mulholland Drive are certainly difficult films to comprehend in one viewing, but there is a rhythm to these movies that you can keep track of. When you watch those movies, you might be confused but you’re engaged by what’s going on. In contrast to those examples, when you find yourself spacing out — potentially imagining a better version of the movie you’re watching — that’s an indicator of a film that wants to be “interpreted” but isn’t warranting the attention it wants.
Men is one of those movies and what’s so frustrating is how it is antithetical to what Garland claimed he wanted to accomplish with his career. This isn’t a layperson distilling complex topics into a story anyone can understand. This is taking a universal point of conversation — how men and women relate with one another — and stuffing it into a senior thesis project of arthouse crap. Most of this movie is difficult to describe. It is like this on purpose. There is nothing more elitist than making a purposefully vague movie for tryhard filmbros on Twitter to over analyze. I resent the idea that the peak experience for a film can only be accomplished after you’ve done some homework reading theories on what it’s all “really about.” And it is so frustrating because Garland’s past work has attracted these types of people despite not warranting it. There’s this unholy alliance between people who update wikis and people who spend way too long in film theory college courses, working together to intentionally ruin movies for everyone by drowning the artform in arcane bullshit.
For example, people who believe Annihilation is actually about a complex alien species that can be understood if you rewatch the cutaways a thousand times are as deranged as the people who think Ex Machina is about toxic men’s desire to imprison women’s sexual liberty. None of those stupid theories are anywhere in the movie. These people need to go outside and touch some grass. Especially those film majors who have seamlessly integrated modern left-wing politics into their understanding of art. It’s become a boring cliché to interpret everything as actually being about something else. And it just so happens that something else is all the stuff they learned in college. These people are possessed by a cynical worldview that they carry with them everywhere and apply it to everything. There is no end in the crusade to deem all art is actually about whatever pet issue they’ve settled on after leaving school. It’s like the painters before the renaissance who just have thousands of canvases with portraits of Jesus. Like enough dude, try a fucking landscape or something. Honestly, this behavior of talking about the same thing all the time deserves to be in the DSM as a type of low-level narcissism. People who think their worldview is ever-present in art that has nothing to do with it need to go to therapy. What is especially disappointing about Men is it caters to that exact demographic. That exact demographic that I believe is ruining critical discussion on film and actively gatekeeps the medium from normal people.
The story of Men cannot be understood without applying some additional academic filter to it. This goes far beyond quirky artistic decisions like having all the male characters played by the same actor. You could certainly interpret a meaning in that decision, but you don’t need it to understand the film. That is not the case for most of this movie. Most of the movie is unintelligible. And I’m not talking about the film being too weird to be believable. Men is not like a movie like Solaris or Possession – where really weird stuff happens but the events are grounded by the fact the characters react to all of it as if it is genuinely occurring. Men exists purely on a field of abstraction that no general audience member can truthfully enjoy unless they’re already drafting their thesis in the theater.
I see this type of filmmaking as the pinnacle of elitism. It goes against everything I like of not only Alex Garland’s work – but it goes against what I like about movies in general. The whole point of a movie is human beings innately understand visual storytelling. That is the power of the medium. You don’t need to understand filmic techniques and you definitely don’t need a college degree. That’s why movies were an instant success a century ago. That’s why they had a golden era of artistic filmmaking. That’s why they are now in a golden era of profitability. And I genuinely believe movies are the future for discerning meaning and purpose in existence because they are the best format to convey deeply important insights. But you can’t achieve any of that if you’re making a film meant to be “interpreted.” It also doesn’t help that the extent of Men’s message is – men can be bad sometimes. Even if you’re sympathetic to that message, you’re better off watching Promising Young Woman. This movie is incapable of providing value because of how it was made and even if you get to where it wants to go, it doesn’t have anything interesting to say.
There’s a lot I could say about the specifics of Men’s execution, but I am choosing not to. I think the pretentiousness and vague narrative will be the breaking point for most people so I focused my critique on that element of the movie. Though it’s worth mentioning at the end here that what literally happens in the movie is flatly dumb. This movie has an obsession with male nudity that is borderline immature. The film is really eager to toss out a naked dude – full dick and balls in every shot – like it’s an Eric Andre skit. Like Garland is hoping the absurdity of the visual will provide a short-term thrill to get through the boring part of the interview.
The other thing I’d say is I thought it was weird how the climax of this movie could be described as machinima made in the video game Dead Space. I really did not need to see a shot zooming into a dirty man’s taint and the subsequent birth that occurred after that four times in a row. Now I’m just thinking about how much I hate this movie.
Anyway, I’d give Men a 2 out of 5. I should honestly give it a 1 out of 5 but I did like some of the earlier sequences. I’m also an Alex Garland fan at the end of the day and I gained something by seeing him experiment in the artform. It is very unlikely you will feel the same way. Men is in essence everything I hate about filmmaking and I suggest you don’t waste your time.