Directed by Alex Garland
Starring Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Gayle Rankin and Paapa Essiedu
The new age of auteurs is upon us. Don’t believe me? Read my 100+ film reviews posted here on your friendly neighborhood website NadaMucho.com and you will see that we are in an exciting new age of cinema.
There are too many active auteurs to compare and contrast each of them to Men director Alex Garland, so for this review let’s look at contemporaries who have also completed their third film.
But wait, do we really know what an “auteur” is? The Oxford dictionary explains, “a filmmaker whose personal influence and artistic control over a movie are so great that they are regarded as the author of the movie.” I will add that many auteurs are involved in nearly every aspect of completing their films, from direction to writing, editing and production. The rarest of auteur even sees to the promotion and marketing of the film, like Alfred Hitchcock and to a lesser extent Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese.
Alex Garland’s initial films garnered critical success and worldwide acclaim despite their modest budgets. Ex Machina (2014) and Annihilation (2018) both told fantastical stories that seemed to depict the not-too-distant future. Written and directed by Garland, each film featured challenging situations and oozed with undertones of personal deconstruction. Garland’s work often challenges the viewer to think with a more nuanced approach, with characters portraying a mix of both admirable and repulsing characteristics. Visually, Garland’s films tend to lull viewers into a meditative state that inspires repeated viewings.
Like a modern Alejandro Jodorowsky, Garland isn’t for everyone. In fact, I assume the average filmgoer’s internal dialogue would include such statements as “Get to the point”… or “Yeah we get it, this person is suffering”… or even, “more action, please!” Others may augment their viewing experience with cannabis or hallucinogens, much like the midnight moviegoers in the 70’s who flocked to see the Jodorowsky’s third film The Holy Mountain (1973).
Men, the third film by Garland, is similar to his previous films aside from the central theme. Whereas Ex Machina used artificial intelligence to create a sense of fear and dread, and Annihilation centered around an alien life form, Men focuses on a more naturalistic premise – the mysticism of nature. As the folklore creeps into the film and runs in parallel to our protagonist’s guilt and grief, the two merge in an insidious way. This convergence comes to fruition in the third act in a frenzied whirl of gore, horror and suspense.
As our protagonist, Harper, Jessie Buckley convincingly conveys this growing sense of unexplained dread with little assistance from the rest of the cast. Even when the uncanny valley rears its head with some of the CGI’d faces of “the men” in the film, Buckley earnestly guides us through the scenes and convinces us to suspend our disbelief. If we trust her, the payoff at the end will be worth it.
Rory Kinnear plays at least ten roles in this film, and though I may have damaged your Optimum Immersion with this statement I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my praise for his performance. Each of his characters impeccably embodies a trope or stereotype of modern man. When I watched it the first time, it felt almost like a parody. When I watched it a second time, I realized that each man I come in to contact with in the real world embodies some of the characteristics of these cinematic avatars. Each is disgusting in a different way, all the while ignorant of their wretchedness and living a life of privilege that has yet to be conveyed to them honestly and patiently. And the brilliant casting of, and performance by, black actor Paapa Essiedu shows that these negative masculine characteristics are not relegated to white males, they really are universal characteristics of “the men.”
The only other actor in this tidy little indie film is Gayle Rankin as Harper’s friend, Riley. Most of her performance is delivered over iPhone Facetime and she still somehow does a good job moving the film along and providing levity and a brief reprieve from the gut-wrenching tension The Men creates.
Modern auteurs are changing filmmaking. They are conceiving, writing, directing and sometimes marketing their films to the world. Film is alive and well so long as there are places for auteurs like these to tell their stories.
Don’t believe me? Here is a list of other genius directors who deserve the auteur title and each one’s third film, all of which you should watch:
- Justin Chon with Blue Bayou (2021)
- David Lowery with A Ghost Story (2017)
- Nia DaCosta with the upcoming The Marvels (2023)
- James Gunn with Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
- Oz Perkin’s Gretel & Hansel (2020)
- Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019)
- Destin Daniel Cretton with The Glass Castle (2017)
- The Safdie Brothers’ Heaven Knows What (2014)
- Trey Edward Shults Waves (2019)
- Taika Waititi with What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
- Ari Aster with the Beau is Afraid (2023)
- Robert Eggers The Northman (2022)
- Michel Franco’s Through the Eyes (2013)
- Chloé Zhao’s Oscar Winning Nomadland (2020)
- Scott Cooper’s Black Mass (2015)
- Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women (2016)
With The Men, Garland undoubtedly earns his place on this list as well. And his third film did something none of these other auteurs’ third films could do – it made me almost vomit with nauseating disgust. Thank you, Alex, for viscerally displaying grief, loss and inadequacy in such a compelling way.
If Alex Garland’s first two films, Annihilation and Ex: Machina, were As then his third is a B+.