Men: they really are all the same in this folk horror tale

Alex Garland’s creepy allegory stars an excellent Jessie Buckley and multiple Rory Kinnears

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Director: Alex Garland
Cert: 16
Genre: Horror
Starring: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu, Gayle Rankin
Running Time: 1 hr 40 mins

#NotAllMen. But more of them than you might expect. Alex Garland’s folk horror takes the broadest of swipes at various colours of toxic masculinity without opening up many new lines of investigation. Here is the repressed upper-class twit. Here is the ecclesiastical incel. Here is the catcalling teenage ingrate. All that’s missing is the idiot who asks, “when is international men’s day, huh?”

What sets the film apart is the impressive oddness of its telling. Speaking in something like her own accent, Jessie Buckley, as convincingly frightened as she is believably unyielding, stars as Harper, a young woman still processing the death of her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu). Details of his wider unpleasantness dribble out in flashback, but from early on we gather that he threatened to kill himself if she left him. Almost the first shot is of James falling past the window as Harper looks on aghast.

Desperate for some healing time, she rents a beautiful mansion in the English home counties. If you want some sense of the not-always-subtle allusions at play, be aware that, before the idyll gives way to the Fall, we see her plucking an apple from a splendid tree. She meets the nice-but-dim owner of the property. She has a scary, beautifully shot fright — cinematographer Rob Hardy soaks everything in verdant artichoke — while walking through a disused railway tunnel. A man is at one end. He later appears fatly naked in the distance.

At this stage, everything is leading us towards the unstoppably fecund tropes of English folk horror. That genre is almost as common now as it was during its high period in the 1970s. It’s all there. There are Sheela-na-Gigs in the church. The Green Man makes an unmistakable appearance. Once again, urban film-makers identify the source of all despair as the tractor-littered outlands.


It takes a while for the film’s big ideas to fully reveal themselves. We guess we are in an allegorical space when Harper fails to notice that all the awful men in the village — even the creepy schoolboy — have Rory Kinnear’s head on their shoulders. He is oily as a clergyman who, initially comforting, wonders how she feels about “causing” her husband’s suicide. He delivers flat, passive-aggressive jokes persuasively as the owner of the mansion. He could hardly be creepier as the teenager. Fitted out with big teeth, mad hair or shrunken shoulders, Kinnear travels closer to League of Gentlemen territory than to the elegant nuances of Alec Guinness’s multiple characters in Kind Hearts and Coronets. But that makes sense. These are archetypes — variations on a poisonous core, rather than attempts at discrete personalities.

Buckley is, once again, terrific as a woman coping gallantly with physical manifestations of her efforts to process the guilt that has, in an act of postmortem abuse, been unfairly pressed upon her. Even when the film descends into a terrific elongated sequence of body horror — more impressive than anything in David Cronenberg’s upcoming Crimes of the Future — she pitches her performance towards controlled distress rather than explosive despair. The conflict is all within her own psyche.

For all the busyness of the action and the braveness of the performances, Men does, however, have trouble locating a satisfactory route out of its weird set-up. You couldn’t say there were any insights into how men get this way and how they might become something else. The final half-hour of a short film descends into a sustained surrealism that invites little real risk or any chance of progression. Men certainly works on the viewer when it is in full flux. But few new ideas stick to the brain when the lights go up. Maybe the creative eccentricity is enough in itself.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist