'Men' review: Woman's quiet getaway is ruined by, what else, men

Academy Award-nominee Jessie Buckley stars in disturbing exercise from writer-director Alex Garland.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Jessie Buckley is put through the wringer in writer-director Alex Garland's art-horror provocation "Men," and not since Jennifer Lawrence endured "mother!" has an actress been pushed further in service of a filmmaker's vision. 

As for what that vision is, well, "Men" is something of an enigma — not unlike "mother!" — that stays locked within itself. It's a shocking, unnerving, unruly little thing, difficult to wrangle and pin down. But the unsettling feeling it gives off resonates just as deeply as the unanswered questions it leaves behind. It's a mood piece, and that mood is dreadful. 

Jessie Buckley in "Men."

Buckley, an Oscar nominee for last year's "The Lost Daughter," is Harper, who leaves London for a stay in the countryside after her husband, James ("I May Destroy You's" Paapa Essiedu) takes his own life. The vicious, harrowing moments that led to his suicide play in flashback throughout the film, vivid, haunting memories that Harper literally cannot escape. 

At the country house, a grand estate that dates back centuries, Harper is greeted by the property manager, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), who shows her around the place and makes an off-color comment or two. Later, Harper is on a walk, surrounded by silence, reconnecting with a sense of inner peace when at the end of a long tunnel she spots a naked man (also Kinnear) who follows her home. The man eventually makes his way onto the property, and Harper has to call the cops to have him taken away. 

Rory Kinnear in "Men."

When she wanders to a nearby church the following day, she's accosted by a young boy in a plastic mask (Kinnear again), who taunts her and calls her names. She then encounters a priest (played by, guess who, Kinnear!) who is blunt with her to the point of cruelty, and Harper storms off, aghast. 

Everywhere she turns, she's accosted by the same face, who takes the form of authority figures, spiritual vessels, service people, children, even nature itself. As the threats to Harper get more immediate, Garland ratchets up the intensity (and doubles down on the body horror weirdness) as the uncomfortable gives way to squirm-inducing.  

Rory Kinnear in "Men."

There's a tree in the house's front yard where Harper grabs an apple and takes a huge bite, so Garland (who also made 2018's environmental sci-fi puzzler "Annihilation" and 2015's slick, smart "Ex Machina") isn't shying away from religious imagery. So it's an allegory for humanity's raw deal? Before you complete your final read, "Men" builds to its psychotic climax, and pushes past grotesque into the realm of the truly baffling — and potentially campy, depending on one's tolerance for graphic depictions of the human life cycle.  

Kinnear is appropriately eerie here, even if he's not always done favors by his makeup and CGI jobs, and Buckley plays the tormented heroine with wholly convincing levels of inner and outer exasperation. 

Call the movie anything else — "Solace," "Intruder," "Vacation After Tragedy," anything — and it's not nearly as incendiary as "Men," which casts the film as an indictment on toxic masculinity the entirety of the male species which, OK, maybe dudes have earned it. It just adds to the difficulty of the experience, which is fair, since nothing about "Men" is meant to be easy, and that includes making heads or tails of it all. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Men' 

GRADE: C+

Rated R: for disturbing and violent content, graphic nudity, grisly images and language

Running time: 100 minutes

In theaters