By KEN MICHAELS
When the moderator of a Q&A following a special critics’ screening of Alex Garland’s MEN refers to it as a “mindfudge” movie, the writer/director is quick to clarify: It’s a “mindfuck” movie. And indeed it is. Developing gradually and inexorably from a study of rural unease to a final act that’s both graphically visceral and mind-twistingly surreal, MEN is the most horrific directorial venture yet from Garland, who previously helmed EX MACHINA and ANNIHILATION from his own scripts (though he did also provide the screenplay for Danny Boyle’s savage and trendsetting 28 DAYS LATER).
Opening this Friday, May 20 from A24, MEN stars Jessie Buckley (Oscar-nominated earlier this year for the drama THE LOST DAUGHTER) as Harper, who’s still recovering from the death of her husband James (Paapa Essiedu). She moves into a house in the British countryside that seems like just the kind of tranquil setting she needs to get her head back together. Instead, encounters with a series of men–the house’s owner, a local vicar, and one guy who’s clearly not all there, among others–put Harper on edge. As the film goes on, their presences evolve from ominous to threatening to downright horrific, turning her life into a nightmare. (See our review here.)
There are plenty of frightening sights and nerve-gnawing scenes in MEN, though Garland doesn’t see the movie in simple genre terms. “I was trying to make a film about a sense of horror that could be interpreted in many different ways,” he explains, “and do it essentially within the genre of horror films, although in some ways it doesn’t really function like a horror film at all. In a horror-movie structure–not always, obviously there are exceptions–but broadly speaking, they’re set in something that feels like the real world, and then something supernatural is introduced, and the initial question is, is this happening or not? Is there something supernatural or not? Then the thing turns out to actually be supernatural, and have an escalating danger attached to it, which is usually demonstrated by killing people one by one, so a group of seven ends up as a group of two by the end of the film. The evil manifestation gets increasingly powerful as the movie continues, until at the very end, it is at its most dangerous, so the hero is at their most disempowered. And at that moment, the hero does something brilliant and defeats it, or maybe defeats it and then it comes back, or whatever it is.
“This structure is kind of an upward climb with a steep drop, and MEN slightly inverts that in a way. So it is a horror film, but it’s also not. It uses some horror tropes and genre conventions, but not others.”
Certainly, there are a number of unexpected developments in MEN that will keep audiences off-balance, questioning what is going on and the meaning of certain scenes. Chief among the elements that will have viewers talking is the casting of actor Rory Kinnear (PENNY DREADFUL) as all the males Harper encounters in her new environment, each a different character but all prompting varying levels of unease and outright fear from her. It’s a very effective gambit, though Garland is reluctant to affix a particular statement or theme to it. And so it is with the rest of MEN.
Genre filmmaking, he says, “gives you a bunch of free gifts, in terms of tools you can use but also ways in which you can try to subvert it. In terms of [MEN’s] subject matter, it all gets a bit psychoanalytical if I talk about it too much, and that might get in the way, at least from my point of view. I don’t want to describe anything about this film. I don’t want to say, ‘This means this,’ or ‘This is what I was thinking of when I did that.’ It’s a product of a conversation; I am trying to lean into something to do with the way audiences interpret and imaginatively engage with images in the story. The simplest form of that is, two people read the same book and then disagree about the motivation of a character or how a plot point happened. That’s just in the nature of a narrative being offered up and a narrative being received. In this film, I particularly wanted to step back, because there’s an element where the nature of the way it is interpreted by different people is actually what the film is about. So I don’t want to intervene in that.”
On the same tack, he incorporated a couple of folkloric elements throughout MEN that have long been open to interpretation. “One is The Green Man, and the other’s called the sheela-na-gig. They’re imagery that you find in medieval churches, but they predate medieval times; they’re all over Europe, and they’re interesting, because they’re such powerful bits of iconography, and they provoke a response of one sort or another when you see them, but there’s not very much information about them. Sometimes academics will present some kind of explanation for them, but there isn’t a good, clear explanation, because they pretty much predate written language. I have written probably three or four scripts using that iconography over the last 15 years, but this was the first time I got to the point of actually making one into a film.”
Garland also reveals a rather surprising inspiration when it came to establishing the locale where Harper takes her ill-fated vacation. “In order to set the scene, I had in mind Richard Curtis, who [writes] movies like NOTTING HILL, FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL–these very kind of bourgeois films about incredibly privileged lives. I wanted the countryside to have a slightly Richard Curtis feeling at the beginning, of being very benign and unreal, actually.”
When it came to bringing MEN’s characters to life, rehearsals were a key part of Garland and his cast’s process–not just discussing and reading the scenes, but talking through the material and remaining open to changes. This continued onto the set, the writer/director points out. “I have always approached filmmaking as a collaboration,” he says. “There’s a poem read by the vicar, which was one suggested by Jessie. Harper playing the piano came from hearing Jessie play the piano between takes. The whole thing was organic, and I always want to stay alive to what the actors are doing, and also just get the fuck out of their way. When we shot Pappa and Jessie arguing [in flashbacks], we did it in quite an unusual way. We had two cameras set up in profile, so we were shooting both their coverage at the same time. That meant that they didn’t have any cameras in their eyelines, they had each other in their eyelines. We were quite distant from the actors, so in a way we were as far back as we could be, and I could use an uninterfered-with set of takes. And something incredibly alive happened. So it’s not just the rehearsal, it’s staying receptive to the changes that can happen on the day, the reactions to a moment.”
As MEN heads out into the marketplace, having won a number of favorable reviews, it offers a more challenging viewing experience than your typical fright flick. Yet while Garland prefers not to explicate his personal meanings behind the film’s hallucinatory imagery, he believes that audiences will appreciate it on a more subconscious level. “I do think that with surrealist filmmaking, there is a danger of it just becoming like a card trick, and it’s dodgy. But I believe that if there’s a coherent reason for it, then people sense that. They don’t necessarily sense your coherent reason, they sense their coherent reason–if it is coherent to them, which it may not be. But it’s not just shit happening.”