Released: 18th August
Seen: 20th November
There’s been a strange trend recently of people pretending that horror films have never been political before roughly 2016. It might seem harsh to say they’re pretending but the alternative is to assume they’re just incredibly media illiterate. Horror as a genre has been political since the start and horror in film is regularly political, even if it’s incredibly subtle about it.
To be somewhat fair to people who think this way, recently films have gotten a lot blunter about their politics so maybe that’s why some people only recently seem to act like this is a big deal… and when it comes to horror films that’s being blunt about their point, there isn’t a blunter film than Men and oh boy let’s hope that it flew under the radar enough that some of the louder assholes in the media criticism space don’t use it for another anti-feminism rant.
Men focuses on Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) who has just witnessed her abusive husband seemingly jump from the roof of their apartment building to his death. Traumatised and needing to get out of her own house for a while, Harper decides to rent herself a small cottage in Cotson, Hertfordshire for a holiday in hopes that she’ll be able to clear her head of all the bad memories brought on by the death of her brutally abusive partner.
Things seem to be going well at first, the landlord Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) in particular seems to be a nice person who doesn’t bother Harper that much… however, the more Harper explores the town, the stranger it seems. Soon she keeps running into men who all look exactly like Geoffrey (all played by Rory Kinnear) and all of them seem to be almost eager to harass her, be it the vicar or a small child or a strange naked man who keeps popping up just outside the little cottage.
Men is very blunt about putting the audience in the mindset of an average woman who has to constantly be on high alert because of the men around her who might turn violent at any moment. It doesn’t even try to have nuance about it, this isn’t a film where the phrase “Not All Men” could apply because in this film every single man is some form of bastard who wants to do some kind of harm to Harper, be it physical, emotional or sexual.
It’s a very black-and-white portrayal of the dynamic between the genders that honestly works for what Men is trying to do, it’s an extreme version of a very real feeling that a large number of women have all the time. It takes that feeling of being wary of men and turns it up to 11 which can create some genuinely unnerving moments, the first time you see Rory Kinnear’s face on someone other than Geoffrey’s is actually quite unsettling and has you sitting up a little straighter out of the pure discomfort of the scene, a discomfort that the audience has undoubtedly been feeling since the start of the film.
Men’s portrayal of an abusive relationship between Harper and her husband James (Paapa Essiedu) is intense as hell, you understand almost immediately just how bad it is and how James has completely emotionally destroyed Harper for years. It doesn’t shy away from it, to the point where one of their fights might actually be the scariest sequence in the film because it feels so intense and real. The elements of this film all have some great potential to them to explore this feeling within the safety of a horror film… and then the final act happens.
Without spoiling the actual events that go on, the final act of Men goes completely off the rails and pushes the weirdness so far that any potential message is lost. It almost feels like the film just realises that it’s been surprisingly goreless for a fairly long time and decided in the final half-hour to just throw out as much weird over-the-top gore shock moments as it could for minimal reason. It feels like the film was building to something important and at the last minute went “Ehh, fuck it, let’s just do some weird imagery instead”. It’s a brutal tone shift that derails a film that already barely held onto the rails.
Instead of actually taking the time to really explore the ideas of misogyny on any real level, the film leans into being so visually impressive that you temporarily ignore the flaws in the story. To be fair to Men, the film is genuinely one of the most beautiful films that have come out this year with some stunning shots that are filled with an intense dreamlike quality that few other filmmakers could properly pull off… but those images don’t help the story as much as they were clearly hoping for.
Despite its noble attempt, Men just isn’t much beyond OK. It’s got some interesting ideas and clearly is trying to say something important but it ends up just devolving into unearned insanity at the end. It’s admirable to see a horror film tackling the topic of misogyny head on, more horror films should take on that topic as bluntly as this one does… it would just help if the next film to tackle this topic was a little smarter about it and didn’t just rely on strange imagery to get the point across.