Leave it to Alex Garland to pulverize toxic masculinity in 100 minutes

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo | May 26, 2022

In Theatres Now
3.5 out of 5 

English writer/director Alex Garland is our preeminent futurist: his perspective on the technological calamities to come is firmly anchored in reality. In his most notable works — Ex Machina, Annihilation, the criminally underseen Devs — it’s not the machines that get us, but the irresponsible, morally dubious way we use them.

But there’s another aspect of Garland’s work that’s often overlooked: his belief that there’s a self-destruct button in all of us, and it doesn’t take much to convince us to press it. Garland’s 1996 novel The Beach is worth rereading just to appreciate this conviction in raw form.

Men deviates from Garland’s fascination with science and technology, but not his gloomy assessment of human nature. Under the guise of horror, he delivers a devastating portrait of toxic masculinity — and, perhaps more interestingly, its impact on the female psyche.

The reluctant hero of Men is Harper (Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter). Recently widowed, Harper retreats to the English countryside to mend. Her relationship was on the rocks, but she can’t help but feel responsible for the suicide of her husband (Paapa Essiedu, I May Destroy You), even though he was a manipulative, passive-aggressive beast until the end.

To no one’s surprise, Harper finds no respite in her sojourn. Not only is the memory of her husband’s death a constant companion, the men in town (all played by Rory Kinnear) make her uneasy, from the pretend bonhomie of her landlord to the local priest’s Old Testament ways. But is it all in her head? Or is her sense of fear and mistrust legitimate? Female viewers know the answer all too well.

Sometime ago, a sporty friend of mine told me that when she went jogging she always kept some gas in her tank in case she had to run away from someone. Men taps into that fear. The stunt of casting the same actor to play almost every male part pays off. For women trapped in a patriarchal nightmare, what are men but this vaguely threatening, stronger, interchangeable bunch — perpetually on the prowl?

Garland takes this idea and runs with it, at least for two-thirds of the film. Effective scares are accentuated by the already charged environment. It’s not news Jessie Buckley can elevate anything she’s in, but Rory Kinnear’s ability to be intimidating in nine different outfits (technically, eight) may come as a surprise. But those who saw him in the first Black Mirror episode (The National Anthem) or the fantastic series Years and Years and Penny Dreadful know the guy is a pro at playing troubled, complex middle-aged men.

Towards the end, the beguiling narrative is engulfed by visual allegories that don’t make much sense. It’s as if in lieu of an ending, Garland crams in as many nightmares as he can get away with. They fail to come together. The only clear through line is that toxic masculinity perpetuates itself, and only decisive action can stop it from continuing ad nauseam. One thing is clear: conservative types are going to hate this movie, times ten. Haven’t white males suffered enough?