In 2014 Alex Garland made his directorial debut with Ex Machina, the tale of a young computer programmer who interviews an artificially-intelligent being to document the presence or absence of human-like qualities. The film succeeds on all levels – narratively and thematically. It was as if Alex Garland emerged on the film-making scene as a fully-formed director after spending a number of years as a professional screenwriter.
Given Garland’s years spent laboring over screenplays, you’ll be left wondering why his latest film, MEN, is so undercooked in that department. The film offers wonderful performances, stunning practical special effects and stellar cinematography. However all those talents are brought to bear on a story that is both overbearing and under-developed. As the old expression goes, the whole is nowhere near the sum of its parts.
In the opening minutes of the film, we are introduced to Harper (Jessie Buckley), a young woman who has recently suffered the death of her husband and is hoping to spend two weeks in the British countryside to rest and adapt to her unexpected life circumstances. During a brief orientation tour, she meets Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), the eccentric caretaker of the property who seems harmless enough.
As Harper settles into her vacation surroundings, she encounters the local vicar, a policeman, a schoolboy and other members of the village. Each of these individuals could pass as Geoffrey’s twin. They appear to be variations of the same person. However, Harper never comments on the fact that every man she meets looks like every other man she meets. She checks in nightly with one of her gal pals, and she never says, “This creepy naked guy who wanders through the woods looks just like the vicar who looks just like the caretaker of this property. Don’t you find that weird?” This disconnect is one of many confusing aspects to the film.
Is it only the audience who sees the members of the village as a collection of clones? Does Harper see six or eight distinct people? Is this all simply a metaphorical story-telling device? No answer is ever given or even hinted at. It’s also never a good sign when the B storyline, a flashback to Harper’s final days with her husband, is far more compelling than the primary narrative.
Screenwriting is a thankless task. If you explain too much, it weighs down the film with endless exposition, and you’re accused of not giving the audience enough credit for having a brain. If you leave the narrative vague and allow the audience to fill in the details, then you’re accused of confusing them. MEN certainly falls in the latter category, but in my opinion, deservedly so.
When I described this film to a friend of mine who’s an aspiring screenwriter, he said, “Tell me a good story, and I’ll find the subtext.” I’m not sure what it says about a film when a person who hasn’t even seen it can sum it up perfectly. MEN clearly has a lot on its mind, but it conveys its themes with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face. It explores the subject of domestic violence, but the overall message feels trite: All men have a capacity for violence and domination and isn’t it ironic that they hurt or kill the very gender that gives them life?
Rory Kinnear gives fearless performances as all of the male characters that Harper encounters during the film, and Jessie Buckley is proving to be one of the most interesting actresses of her generation. The failures of this film do not lie on their shoulders.
I can’t help thinking that this film was the perfect COVID creation, an idea with six or eight characters who can be played by only two cast members. It might have been a clever way to make a film during a pandemic. Unfortunately the finished product is anything but clever.
MEN opens in theaters on Thursday, May 19th.