Click here to listen to the flashback interview with Alex Garland for EX MACHINA.
One of the many striking images from Alex Garland’s MEN is of a serene autumnal landscape with a dark and looming entrance to a tunnel. It all but shimmers in the late afternoon sun, and then a raindrop falls into it, the ripples revealing the image to be a reflection, not the real thing. This is not the opening image, bathed in orange light and with its heroine’s bloody nose and look of dumb horror. Nor is it the most visceral in a horror film full of them. It is, however, a key shot, as rife with portent as the shadows seen washing over the pagan images on a baptismal font.
The heroine is Harper (Jessie Buckley) currently trying to heal in the bucolic English countryside after watching her estranged husband, James (Paappa Esiedu), fall to his death after a violent argument. The cottage to which she has retreated, a miniature stately home, seems the ideal place to find some peace amid the splendor of the English countryside. There’s even a laden apple tree to welcome her with its tempting fruit. She succumbs, only to be chided by by Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), the toothy country squire renting her the house and subjecting her to cheesy patter as well as the lame joke about the fruit being forbidden. He also asks if her husband will be joining her, which triggers a defensive response in Harper, one for which she blames herself.
At some point during Harper’s stay, the burden of memory and unassuageable guilt take their toll, leaving us to question which of the events that subsequently occur may or may not be in Harper’s mind as Garland neatly segues from psychological horror into the kind in which blood flows freely. In closeup. With teeth-gritting sound effects.
Harper takes the recommended hike through the woods, joyfully playing with an echo in that ci-mentioned tunnel until a figure runs toward her from the other end. She flees, only to calm herself when she finds herself alone, and once again moved by the countryside, including the abandoned building by which she finds herself. That’s when the naked man appears, just standing there in half-shadow. She snaps a photo and texts it to best friend Riley (Gayle Rankin). They laugh over it, until the man shows up in Harper’s yard. By the apple tree.
Garland’s film is full of signs and wonders, using semiotics rather than conventional storytelling to impart his tale of guilt, wounded psyches, and the terrors of failing to confront the root causes of either. All the men of the film, from the boy in the Marilyn Monroe mask who calls Harper a bitch, to the vicar who tries to comfort Harper’s anguish with ill-chosen words and a hand on her knee and a tumbled cross in the background, bear variations of Kinnear’s face. And it can’t be a coincidence that the three estates are represented. As Harper’s first night in her cottage becomes more perilous with intruders intent on invading her space, what we see is her reality, which in this circumstance is the only one that matters. The projection of Geoffrey’s face shields from her unresolved guilt as much as it represents the way that guilt follows her. Literally. Does the naked man, designated as harmless by the authorities, return to menace Harper as the Green Man carved on the font? Has the prideful parting of the vulva on that same font’s sheela na gig discombobulated her with its bold depiction of female power, a power that finds expression in a sequence that will haunt even seasoned midwives in the audience, even as it brings an eerie calm to Harper?
There is much to ponder, but it is eminently worth doing so. The fever pitch of Harper’s terror, and its parallel in her anger after arguing with James, encapsulates the female condition not just in our times, but throughout history. Channeled by Buckley as neither victim nor Valkyrie, Harper is unquestionably a modern woman comfortable in her own skin, yet challenged by millennia of programming. It is a blazing performance of exquisite depth and an emotional resonance that eschews thespian showiness in favor of a stunning immediacy.
MEN gives us many demons to battle as it refracts a woman’s own power back to her through the prism of an ingrained patriarchy. Savage and poetic, it is like nothing else, and it will be as fresh and mysterious and discomfiting on the 50th viewing as it was on the first.