Men (2022)

Spoilers follow.

I’m a big fan of Alex Garland’s recent films so I was very much looking forward to seeing what an out and out horror movie directed by him would be like. Men (2022) has received mixed reviews on release, with many complaining that the story didn’t make sense, most particularly the ending. I felt that it did show coherence throughout, albeit in a metaphorical or allegorical fashion. 

In brief, Men is a horror film about the patriarchy. The way it robs you of your freedom, your solitude, your independence and your sanity with its relentless presentation, its insistence on perpetuating itself (both in conversation and then later literally), its myriad microaggressions. Many of the key moments in the film involve small moments that add up to a frightening whole: a hand on a knee, a phrase, an overstepping, a reluctance to believe or take seriously. Even a choice of honorific has an hurtful and intimidating connotation here.

Our protagonist Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) is taking a fortnight to herself after a traumatic row with her husband James (Paapa Essiedu) that resulted in his death. She seeks to simply be, to exist and to heal in this rented estate in the country; instead, at every avenue, she is pestered or harassed by a series of males, all of whom bear the same face (that of Rory Kinnear). Their offences become more and more brazen throughout. Harper is remarkably adamant in her own point of view and this appears to rankle.

The ending – wherein one man gives birth to another, and then that man gives birth to yet another, and so on until we arrive at James again, who sits up with Harper and persists in blaming her for his death – entails the conjunction of two very old, even pagan ideas: that of the Green Man and that of the Sheela Na Gig (this is the reason too that Men is referred to as a folk horror; I would quibble with that, but it’s a digression). These figures are depicted in the film as two sides of the same baptismal font in a spooky church Harper visits at one point. 

The film is suggesting some union of the male and female pagan (re)birthing energies, and this I think is key to understanding why these men are suddenly giving birth to each other at the end. It’s also making implicit the connection between her overtly aggressive late husband and the men in the town who have been so relentless in their own aggressions. When Riley (Gayle Rankin) arrives to see her friend, it’s clear that these women share a strong bond beyond friendly phonecalls. One can see how they flourish in each other’s presence. 

And this brings me to two key pieces of the puzzle most people seem to have overlooked, the answer James gives when Harper asks him what he wants from her (“love”), and the following shot of a dandelion losing its seeds played in reverse. Is love the key to patriarchy? A woman’s love for a man? Doing away with that entire construct (“he loves me, he loves me not”) may then be where happiness lies. A good hang with a good friend out in the countryside. Like Midsommar, perhaps this is a happy ending in disguise.

Is the film problematic? Most definitely, not least because James is the only person of colour in the whole thing, and he’s an unbalanced, aggressive person at that. There is also the issue of gender ‘essentialism’ going on – the film is called Men, after all. The fact that Riley arrives alone and pregnant at the end is very interesting, I thought. It further suggests a future free of men. Would I recommend watching Men? If you like A24 films (for it is such a one), and/or body horror, give it a go. 

X (2022)

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I just don’t like Ti West’s horror films. They’re retreads of stuff we’ve seen, stylized for modern audiences. Still, I heard his latest X (2022) was a 70s slasher tribute combined with a porno shoot, and that was too tempting to pass up so I gave it a go. And holy moly, does it ever call back to films like Mother’s Day or Burnt Offerings or Eaten Alive (or most particularly The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). It’s like a DJ playing covers of songs you really enjoyed long ago; you’re reminded of the pleasure but without the ‘x factor’ (heh) that made it so fun to begin with.

It’s difficult to discuss a horror film without mentioning the villain(s), so SPOILERS ahead: the film crew are renting a cottage from an elderly couple living on a farm, and it is they who begin killing off the principals. This beggars belief, not only because these people are wizened and frail, but because West has made the strange decision to have these seniors played by younger actors with prosthetics. I guess this was supposed to cause the audience to reflect on something or other, but I just found it distracting and cheap looking.

So I think that’s it for Ti West and myself. There’s a germ of an interesting idea here about beauty, youth and aging, but it’s drowned out by mediocrity and the stink of easy plagiarism.

Addendum: I’ve just seen the trailer for the prequel to X (apparently shot at the same time), a period piece called Pearl, about the younger days of the lady with a mean streak. I guess at least this explains having Mia Goth play two roles. In fairness, she is the best thing about X, so a prequel starring her may be a good call.

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea (1976)

Based on a short novel by Japanese enigma Yukio Mishima and transplanted to Dartmouth, Devonshire in England where it was shot, screenwriter-director Lewis John Carlino himself refers to this as an odd film. I would agree for a whole host of reasons, namely that it appears to be one thing (a torrid romance) while instead being something entirely different (a moral horror movie). It was Carlino‘s first feature film and is the first attempt to translate Mishima for Western film audiences; with all that considered, it’s amazing that so much went right for the production. Even the weather fully co-operated throughout the shoot. 

Weather aside, much of this success is certainly down to the crew, which Carlino credits producer Martin Poll as assembling: music by John (Johnny) Mandel; cinematography by Douglas Slocombe; editing by Anthony Gibbs. These were first-class professionals and Carlino is gracious with his praise for their steady assistance and ability. The cinematography in particular is absolutely first-rate, replete with many beautiful shots of the seas roiling and crashing against the shore, and of atmospheric Dartmouth and its surrounding countryside.

The story is fairly simple: a 13 year old boy named Jonathan (Jonathan Kahn) and his widowed mother Anne (Sarah Miles) live by the sea. She is desperately lonely and he is privy to this, along with a then-groundbreaking masturbation scene by Miles, through a hole in the wall between their rooms. The boy is certainly at an awkward stage, as they say, and pals around with a group of other lads his age who use numbers instead of names for ‘security reasons’ and who are led by a boy called “The Chief” (Earl Rhodes). 

This is the group’s little führer, a nasty sort studied in his sadistic tendencies and happy to lord his superior intelligence and confidence over the group. He reminded me of nothing so much as a budding Ian Brady, reading Sade and convincing himself this is the way the world works, desperate to involve others in his schemes and depravities. The Chief’s really quite an incredible character, especially for such a young actor to pull off. The first time I saw the film many years ago, this was probably my main takeaway.

When a sailor named Jim (Kris Kristofferson) enters his mother’s life, Johnathan is initially thrilled by what he sees of the couple through his peephole, and seems to be much in awe of Jim. He’s forming his ideas about life and is impressed not only by Jim’s “muscles and scars”, but with his romantic relationship with the sea – much to The Chief’s disgust. The Chief has convinced his gang that adults only use morality as a selfish tool, and the whole business of right and wrong is really a lie. 

He ties such thinking to several bouts of animal mutilation and killing with the boys, efforts to get at the ‘pure core of things’, sequences which are nauseating more in concept than execution. That is to say, this isn’t Cannibal Holocaust and no animals actually die onscreen. In the infamous cat dissection scene, close-ups of internal organs are overlaid with a pan across the boy’s staring faces. The implication is enough, and though I would hope this wouldn’t put someone off seeing the film, it’s certainly worth mentioning in case that’s too much for you.

One thing I think the book managed better than the film was the change in Jonathan’s attitude towards Jim once Jim resolves to marry his mother, and return no more to the sea. Jonathan decides Jim is a pernicious, impure influence and must be punished. Of course The Chief would go further still, and so a plan comes to fruition that results in perhaps the creepiest zoom-out ending shot I can think of (Kingdom of the Spiders had a good one too, come to think of it).