At a live-streamed Q&A with writer/director Alex Garland after an Austin screening of his new horror film, “Men,” the interviewer started with a rather inelegant comment — that Garland’s movie was a “mind-fuck.”
Garland didn’t seem to mind, but he didn’t answer the implicit question of what we had just seen. Nor did many critics in the crowd really expect him to explain himself. Artists rarely do that. Instead, they leave their movies or books or paintings up to interpretation and possible appreciation.
This review is an attempt to explain “Men” without spoilers by looking at the way Garland decided to tell his story. And in that regard, it’s intended as an appreciation.
The movie focuses on Harper (the Oscar-nominated Jessie Buckley), whose manipulative husband has just died. She rents a home in the English countryside where she plans to live alone for a while, trying to come to terms with his death.
In that regard, Garland is making what literary critics would call a pastoral movie — one that often highlights the beauty and peacefulness of nature. That’s called a soft pastoral work of art, as in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” with the forest of Arden being a place of contemplation and becoming.
There’s also a hard pastoral, where characters experience enlightenment amid nature’s harshness. The’s the case in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” where Granny meets the Misfit in a woods “tall and dark and deep.”
As you have probably guessed, “Men” takes the hard pastoral route. Instead of peace, Harper meets a disturbing succession of men, from a naked stalker, to a bully-ish school boy to a meddling priest who inspires rage. And the landlord of the estate is a bit creepy, too.
It’s not a stretch to believe that Harper is reliving some of the worst moments with men in her past — maybe a pervert who exposed himself, a bully, an abusive priest.
All of the men in the movie, with the exception of Harper’s husband (Papa Essiedu), are played by one actor, the inimitable Rory Kinnear. So there’s an implicit connection between them all.
In a hard pastoral, violence typically erupts. In “Men,” it’s shockingly gruesome, involving a knife scene that makes M. Emmet Walsh’s ordeal in “Blood Simple” seem quaint.
There’s also some serious, slimy rebirthing going on.
Viewers will probably think that Garland’s “Men” goes well beyond the surrealism of his previous movies — “Annihilation” and “Ex Machina.”
But it all has a point. It’s not just for shock value or to mess with your mind. Each scene is leading up to Harper’s final realization. And that’s why “Men” is very much a work of art.
“Men” opens in theaters on May 20. It will have its world premiere as a special screening in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar at the Cannes Film Festival.