Two decades ago, Alex Garland tested the horror waters by writing the screenplay for Danny Boyle’s zombie feature “28 Days Later.” He then turned his focus to science fiction making his directorial debut with 2014’s “Ex Machina” which was followed by “Annihilation” in 2018. “Men” marks the English writer-director’s return to the horror genre with a psychological thriller that pits Jesse Buckley against an assortment of misogynists (all played by Rory Kinnear) while vacationing alone at an Airbnb in a small village not realizing the B’s stand for bullying and, thanks to the final act, bonkers.

Buckley, one of the most interesting actors working today, spends most of the film reacting to the evil that men do. She plays Harper Marlowe, a widow who witnessed her husband James (Paapa Essiedu) plunge to his death while committing suicide by jumping off the balcony of their London flat. The traumatic event happened in a matter of seconds but in Harper’s mind, the scene replays in slow motion with James falling outside the window and glancing in while she looks out. She’s left wondering if he saw her before his grisly death.

A series of flashbacks show James distraught, vowing to kill himself after discovering Harper wants a divorce. She remains calm while he becomes unstable. We don’t need to know the hows and whys, it’s evident the marriage is toxic. Then when James knocks Harper to the ground after punching her in the face, the severity of the situation becomes crystal clear.

The story shifts from London to a small village where Harper has rented a country home named Cotson Manor. She’s looking for a weekend of solitude to clear her head while recovering from the trauma inflicted by James’ suicide. Her sister Riley (Gayle Rankin) offered to come along for company, but Harper wanted to be alone, a testament to her strength.

Garland uses symbolism throughout “Men” to create an atmosphere that demonstrates how women are often blamed for men’s actions. It can be subtle, like Harper picking an apple from a tree and biting into it, only to be told by Geoffrey (Kinnear), the country home’s owner “Mustn’t do that” because it’s “forbidden fruit”. With a toothy grin, he explains he’s joking as Harper is compared to Eve, the reference reminds us how victim-blaming women began with the Bible, which of course was written by men. Whether he’s doing it subconsciously or not, Geoffrey’s remark is an example of how many men perceive themselves as dominant over women.

Later in the film, a naked homeless man wonders outside the rental home. Could it be the Adam to Harper’s Eve? One thing is for sure, it’s the same person that chased her down a dark tunnel earlier in the day while out for a leisurely stroll. The police are called to investigate but don’t offer much help, the female officer seems concerned for Harper’s safety, opposite of the male officer who is inattentive and when she informs him that the man could be stalking her, “I saw him twice,” he responds, “But I don’t know if he saw you once.”

Suddenly it feels like Harper is caught in an episode of “The Twilight Zone” as if she’s descended upon a misogynist village of the damned. To make matters worse, the local vicar who overheard Harlow weeping in the church sits down next to her for what we presume will be a comforting moment. Instead, he places his hand inappropriately on her leg while suggesting that she caused her husband’s suicide. Did I mention the creepy masked kid hanging outside the church? He slings the B-word at Harper when she declines to play a game of hide and seek.

The various iterations of the horrible men in the film are all played by Rory Kinnear under various layers of prosthetics, contact lenses, and in one case, CGI form. It’s mind-boggling that you don’t notice it right away. It’s a testament to Kinnear’s extraordinary performance as the actor incorporates various inflections and mannerisms to immerse himself into each character. There are a couple of ways to interpret Garland’s usage of Kinnear. One pertains to the shocking ending (which I’ll get to later) and the other, which I feel is even more fascinating, is the idea that Harper sees all men in the same light, easy to believe based on her experiences.

“Ex Machina” and “Annihilation” demonstrated Garland’s ability to create genuine tension and suspense. With “Men” the writer-director becomes proficient at his craft. It’s rare to see a film these days that successfully combines suspense with gore (usually one outweighs the other). Cinematographer Rob Hardy uses low lighting to reinforce the suspense as in the scene where Harper encounters the naked man in the railway tunnel. It’s a beautiful sunny day yet the almost pitch-black tunnel immediately signals danger and once a silhouette emerges from the shadows it becomes an unforgettable moment of terror, heightened further by the figure running towards our protagonist.

The film’s eerier atmosphere is also contributed to by composers and frequent Garland collaborators Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury whose choral orchestration reflects a scene in the film where Buckley’s character uses her voice to create an echo. The reflected soundwaves are used hauntingly to set the tone as part of the chilling score.

It’s hard for any film to shock me, yet “Men” did just that thanks to the unexpected final act that tosses psychological horror out the window in favor of gore that recalls David Cronenberg’s affinity for body transformation. Garland pushes the envelope, extending the scene past where most filmmakers would yell “Cut.” It’s an ending that should prompt healthy discussions and in some cases division. There are hints of what’s to come as The Green Man, a pagan symbol for the cycle of life, death, and re-birth, begins to show up, first as an image in the small village church. Garland doesn’t feel the need to explain the climax, leaving it up to the audience’s interpretation.

Following two solid performances in 2020’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” and last year’s “The Lost Daughter,” Jesse Buckley hits the mark with a resilient depiction in “Men”, fueled by the #MeToo movement. It’s an efficacious example of the monumental task at hand for Harper and women around the world. It’s also a battle much larger than the one Lieutenant First Class Ripley fought in the “Alien” franchise. In space no one can hear you scream. On Earth, everyone can. Unfortunately, the demand for change falls on too many deaf ears.

(3 ½ stars)

Now showing in theaters

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.