The New Ball & Chain – Men (2022)

Thankfully, whatever illness I was dealing with last week is behind me and I got to go back to the movies with a clean bill of health. I used that opportunity to check out my Editor’s Pick from last week and it was interesting but not for the reasons I expected. Alex Garland’s latest film, Men, is stylish and probably even creepier than the trailer suggests, but it seems to get a little lost in its allegorical approach. 

This scene is prominently featured in the trailer and lets you know there’s a significant trauma at the center of the story

After the sudden death of her husband, a woman looks to escape for a while to a remote manor in the English countryside. However, there’s something very strange about the village people and her idyllic retreat turns into a waking nightmare. 

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It looks like Alex shared with Jessie for this scene

Whatever substances Alex Garland was getting into when he made this film, he needs to share that with the audience because this third film of his is a trip. It has that hallmark ominous tone and the adept visual storytelling style that highlights why he’s a compelling filmmaker. This one is more graphic than its predecessors, much more, combining practical costume and makeup effects with some smartly integrated moments of CGI. Except for that digital overlay of Rory Kinnear’s face onto Zak Rothera-Oxley’s body. That was a bit jarring and never quite looked real enough in comparison to the rest of the film. 

While the film certainly looks the part, aside from the aforementioned, the story element struggled to gain the necessary traction. The film sort of meanders through the first act, juxtaposing the serenity of the lush English countryside with the sun-soaked interiors of the couple’s flat while they argue about their relationship. There’s a scene where the lead character, Harper, is exploring the property around the vacation rental and she comes to stop and stares at a tree along her path. There’s nothing significant or substantial about this tree, and maybe that’s the point, but there’s the intent and focus in the camera on this thing that doesn’t matter to film. It’s quite possible that there’s a subtle detail in that shot that I would have to go back and look for but, even if there was, Harper never returns to that spot. That’s a sort of microcosm for the film that often focuses its energy in strange places. 

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The scene-setting and cinematography are on point as usual

Another good example is the tunnel scene that’s prominently featured in the trailer. It looks fantastic on screen and Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy have a lot of fun getting creative with the light and shadow and the reflective surfaces. However, this is another scene that goes on for quite some time after we’ve gotten to the point. I read another review about how that is a place where Harper feels safe and she’s able to smile and have fun for the first time in the film as she creates a melody with the sound of her own echoed voice. All of this is true, but the melody and the music are still pretty creepy and never lulled me into any false sense of security that this other writer suggested. According to that review, it supposedly foreshadows the ending as well, but you’ll have a hard time believing that too when you see it. 

Jessie Buckley is still captivating even though she’s working with broad strokes

It’s a metaphor for grief, regret, guilt, and fear, and there’s an abundance of symbolism present in the characters of the “men” and in the set pieces. It’s meant to show much Harper is carrying that burden with her at all times, but there is a time when it becomes overkill. There’s a particular statuette with a demonic-looking face on one side and some kind of female fertility being, and it’s very prominently featured in multiple edits but it just becomes redundant. It’s a weird stylistic choice in comparison to some of the smartly stitched-in edits from Editor Jake Roberts who ties in flashbacks to the catalyst incident, especially during the beginning of the film.

Jessie Buckley is always going to be a compelling lead because she’s great. That’s why you bring here into the project in the first place. Her skill as a performer carries the narrative and it gives it enough credibility to try to make the rest work. However, we don’t get a lot of actual character development for her. We are just supposed to sympathize with her based on some generic brush strokes. The relationship with her husband is the whole catalyst for the story and boils down to one argument with minimal character context. There’s just enough there to move things along, but it’s an area that should have been the focus rather than some of those other things I pointed out.

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The approach to that is slow and subtle too, with Rory Kinnear playing six or seven characters. He’s exceptional and his range is important in establishing the tone. As much as he can be equal parts creepy, menacing, lecherous, and funny, the character dynamic runs into borderline gimmick territory as Garland seemed focused on the low-hanging fruit rather than substance. However, there are still several moments where Kinnear is excellent and arguably the best part of the movie.

While this film did some things well, it still felt flat and I can see why some have called this a “misstep” for Garland. I get it. It felt very much like a short story idea that was stretched into a feature-length film but it didn’t earn its runtime or its finale. I don’t think laughter was the intended result of the film’s finale, but I certainly wasn’t the only one. Maybe it was and that goes back to that comment I made about substances earlier. It’s a good idea for a creepy character setup but didn’t flesh out the details of how or why we should care beyond the basic brushstrokes. Even for a film that’s a slow burn, the pacing was a bit self-indulgent and it wasn’t as substantive as I needed it to be.

Recommendation: This is very different genre-wise from Alex Garlan’s other work, so this might not be for you if you’re a fan of Ex Machina or Annihilation. It’s also extremely graphic in some instances that may cause some people to walk out. See it for the performances and the style.

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