It starts when she eats the apple, reaching toward temptation like a modern-day Eve, that carnal queen. Whether this act in itself actually spells the downfall of man, or merely promises mens’ ruin by working them into a froth over who to blame for that ruin, is, I guess, up for debate. A useful thing about Alex Garland’s new movie, Men, is that it’s made up its mind on the subject. There’s a lush, buxom, unembarrassed history of men believing that the failures of their own lives are the fault of women — a fate handed down from on high, for many people, by the story of our creation.
Men, stripped down to the essentials, is a movie about a woman trying to mind, and handle, her business. Harper is looking to escape her life for two weeks with a sojourn to the country. She has rented out a grand, 500-year-old country house in what is effectively the middle of nowhere — carried there, in part, by tragedy. Her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu), has died; this is the first thing we see in the movie. It takes a series of flashbacks scattered throughout the story to reveal the complexities of that death, which may have been a suicide, and of the marriage itself, which was already in serious trouble. You sense that Harper is trying, in part, to outrun a sense of guilt. It doesn’t work out that way. Her demons follow her.
Men is the kind of movie to literalize those demons, mostly in the form of a man, performed by surprisingly malleable Rory Kinnear, who plays a cruel, spooky trick on her. The mechanics of that trick are best left to the movie. Suffice it to say that you’ll start to feel like you’re seeing Kinnear’s face everywhere — because you are. On the faces of a child, a vicar, a cop; sometimes threatening, other times more timid, but with a clear sense of ulterior motives. This recognition in itself is creepy enough, even more so than the actual blood and guts of the story, the knives-out stalking and terror and crescendos of violence that give the movie an ending and beginning. There is nothing creepier or more effective in Men than a nude man’s sudden, unwelcome appearance in the English countryside, looming and staring and silent, giving all the impression of wanting to be seen, wanting to violate the woman who’s looking, in the context of a movie that inflicts this act on its audience in the same moment.