Inextricably tied to the primitive rituals of a bygone human society, the folk horror genre has long concerned itself with lost characters who find themselves victim to ancient commandments that still have a chokehold over the cycle of life. Whilst so often it is modern characters who stumble onto peculiar coverns who still abide by ancient practices, in Alex Garland’s fascinating exploration of masculinity, the horrors of the primitive pagan patriarchy are demonstrated to still fester to this very day.
Crawling in the earth of the English countryside and residing like smog in its atmosphere, Garland shows that not even the rural purity of the forests are safe for the protagonist of Men, Harper (Jessie Buckley) a young woman seeking escape from the torment of recent troubles. Taking residence in a creaking cottage that reluctantly bridges the gap between traditional and contemporary, boasting a wooden front door that barely locks and a WiFi box that’s been begrudgingly installed, Harper attempts to enjoy her isolation until the residents of the village disrupt her content with emotional manipulation and physical threat.
This bubbling fury emanates from the image of the Green Man, a legendary figure of rebirth and a consistent reference point for Garland who uses the creature’s overbearing presence, carved into baptismal fonts, cathedral walls and abbeys, as a symbol of sinister male control. Whilst his presence is an ethereal part of the town’s natural order, he is also embodied as a naked pervert, stalking Harper everywhere she goes with an oppressive threat.
Such scenes merely touch on the intricate brilliance of Garland’s third directorial feature, a horror which illustrates a marvellous control of its folklore genre as well an informed knowledge of the lived female experience. Translated like a nightmare in which you’re immobilised by its pure horror, Men contains an innate dread of hopelessness wherein nowhere is safe and no one is to be trusted.
As if minions of the Green Man himself, the residents of the fictional English town of Cotson carry a hereditary entitlement, whether it’s the policeman who comes to Harper’s aid during, the priest who confides in her troubles or the small boy who mocks her with spiteful malice. Each individual seems controlled by the very same entity, an idea excellently illustrated by Garland’s decision to have every character played by Rory Kinnear who pulls off an extraordinary performance slinking into several detestable roles.
Indeed, every and each character he plays represents a different facet of modern-day masculinity, each one fragile and broken, emotionally contorted and manipulated by generations of control. The only man not played by Kinnear is Harper’s ex-husband, a character who died under mysterious circumstances, until the film pieces this together as if the recollection of a bad dream.
Bridging the gap between ancient folklore and modern drama, this domestic tragedy is articulated by the oppressive folk horror tale, itself one pronged with vivid, primitive imagery that reigns exceedingly relevant in a modern setting.
Such doesn’t make for easy viewing, with the visceral terror of Alex Garland’s modern masterpiece enough to urge any viewer to cower behind their hands. Though, it is his entangled obsession with the complicated constructs of gender that make this film so essential, speaking to a horror that has long festered in the sheer fabric of mankind.