Alex Garland is not what you would call a subtle filmmaker. Calling her new horror monster Men, the director of Ex-Machina essentially hangs a lantern on his themes of toxic masculinity before the film even begins. Revolving around a woman who retires to the countryside to recover from a marriage gone wrong, the film follows some frankly obvious lines, even as it seeks to distract our attention with the intriguing conceit of having its protagonist , Harper (Jessie Buckley), terrorized by a village full of men who all look like Rory Kinnear. Meeting him for the first time in the form of the owner of the country house she has decided to rent (he is a creepy and obsequious tof called Geoffrey, whose clumsy eccentricities mask a more insidiously intrusive manner), she politely endures his awkward conversation as he shows her around the 400-year-old house, visibly grimacing when he brings up the topic of sanitary product disposal and flinching when he jokingly berates her for eating an apple from the garden because it is a “forbidden fruit”. As already noted, Garland doesn’t often miss an opportunity to explain something that doesn’t require explanation.
It’s a shame, because he can also be good at creating spooky atmospheres, like in the sequence where we follow Harper on a countryside walk along an old railway line – a pleasant enough ride that quickly turns around sinister when she encounters a naked man (also Kinnear) who follows her home. Garland creates two scenes of sustained dread in quick succession by having said character languish in the background of shots invisible to Harper (one involves a resonating tunnel, the other the conservatory of her rental). This all bodes well for the movie, if not Harper. But as she meets more of the village’s male populace — including a policeman, an obnoxious schoolboy, and an Old Testament-wedding vicar — that tension dissipates as their facial similarities go uncommented, though Harper argues on video with a nice friend (Gayle Rankin) on the villagers.
Is she experiencing some version of the Fregoli illusion, the rare disease that plagued the protagonist of Charlie Kaufman’s creepy and sad Anomalisa? Not really, or at least only in the sense that Garland may have plundered Kaufman’s films for ideas (a later pub scene also recalls the surreal moment in Being John Malkovich where the titular actor is faced with a room full of Malkoviches). As Garland recounts the story of Harper’s relationship with her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu), repeatedly looking back on their last day together, it’s clear that it’s all going to be a manifestation of the trauma she’s been through and, of course, no matter how Viscerally Garland manifests her deep-seated thesis that men are the same, that’s really all there is to it. It doesn’t help that Buckley’s character feels underdeveloped. Or that Kinnear’s performances are reminiscent of the comedic grotesques of The League of Gentlemen. Or that the film’s slow-motion opening shot is like a comedic homage to Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, another film that was obviously provocative about gender, trauma and original sin, but which at least had a cohesive set of images. and ideas. Garland riffs on folk horror with allusions to the Green Man and other gendered symbols of birth and regeneration, but it all feels like a distraction from the obviousness of its message. Like many recent horror movies, Men plays like a college diary looking for a movie.
No such complaints with dash cam. The latest from the team behind lockdown horror hit Host is another gonzo scarefest, this time set (and shot) just as restrictions were starting to ease and people were tentatively returning to the world. A found footage freak film updated for the era of live streaming sites such as Twitch, it casts LA-based alt-rocker-turned-controversy-magnet Annie Hardy as an obnoxious and denial social media troll. Covid breaking quarantine to fly to London, supposedly so she can hang out with her former bandmate, Stretch (Amar Chadha-Patel), but really so she can supply her army of followers social media a constant barrage of MAGA influenced, hip-hop infused, edge-lord invective.
Randomly insulting, triggering and denouncing anyone trying to deal with Covid in a safe and sensible way, she is an abrasive and dangerous narcissist and Hardy’s true take on some of the topics her character talks about – well documented on social media – don’t like him very much. But set against the backdrop of a savage horror movie about the literal and figurative monsters that lurk in the shadows of our frightened age, Hardy’s cartoonish riff on his own media persona is compulsively and hilarious to watch, not least because director Rob Savage – working from a screenplay co-written with Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd – gives her space to improvise while orchestrating a roller coaster of chaos around her that escalates with each antagonistic choice she makes. ‘she does. Pushed by her staunch followers – whose emoji-punctuated comments work like a digital Greek choir on the side of the screen – her situation goes from bad to downright apocalyptic as she accompanies Stretch on her food delivery route and ends up getting more than she bargained for when she steals his car and agrees to drive a decrepit woman to the countryside for a fee. Like a wicked illicit video from the 1980s, what follows is a short, crisp shot of a fun horror movie.
Men is on general release from June 1; Dashcam is available on select versions from June 3 and on digital demand from June 6.