In the aftermath of a personal tragedy, Harper (Jessie Buckley) retreats alone to the beautiful English countryside, hoping to have found a place to heal. But someone or something from the surrounding woods appears to be stalking her. What begins as simmering dread becomes a fully-formed nightmare, inhabited by her darkest memories and fears.

Men is undoubtedly a beautifully made film. Director Alex Garland carefully captures the sweeping green of the countryside, the splendor of the old manor, the old-timey feel of the church just over the horizon. He knows how to find the beauty, the charm of these visuals, and how to twist them into something sinister that sets your nerves on edge.

The horrors of Men

Jessie Buckley delivers an excellent performance as Harper, a woman who’s chosen this country manor as her temporary escape from reality. Emotionally recovering from her husband’s recent suicide, she’s just looking for some peace, quiet, and alone time. 

As you may have guessed, she’s not going to get any of that.

The men in the town simultaneously dislike Harper and won’t seem to leave her alone. There’s Geoffrey, the cheerful-but-patronizing owner of the home Harper is renting out. The town vicar, who splits his time between encouraging Harper’s guilt about her past and making sexual overtures towards her. The teenager who calls her a bitch for refusing to play a game with him. The naked man who stalks Harper out of the woods and tries to break into her home, and the cop who pulls a “it’s your word against his” and lets the guy go.

In this way, Men is an examination of misogyny in its many forms and faces. When the film begins, it sets the audience on a journey that’s part thriller, part social commentary. The horror most often comes in the form of creeping dread: the feeling of a woman alone, a man watching her from a distance. The feeling of a seemingly normal conversation that still sets your teeth on edge, because you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. (It always does.)

All that is to say, it’s a very specific, very grounded type of horror that kicks off Men… which is very different from where the film ends up.

A make-or-break ending

Men either comes together or falls apart in the end, depending on what you like to see in your horror movies and what you expect to get out of this one. But if there’s one thing Men isn’t, it’s predictable. 

People who have watched some of Garland’s other films, like Ex Machina and Annihilation, will know that he enjoys leaning into the bizarre and unexpected. This has never been more true than in Men. The first two-thirds of the movie do little to prepare you for the way the story ultimately twists and escalates. In fact, the last part of Men feels like an entirely different kind of horror story than the rest of the movie, shifting from a societal commentary thriller to a surrealist experience topped off with Cronenberg-esque body horror.

Is that a good thing? I’m not sure. It was interesting to see unfold, no doubt. I wanted to see where it would lead. It’s grotesque, in a compelling sort of way. Visually striking, for sure. But was it good

Again, I guess maybe that depends on what you want out of Men. I don’t think it’s what I wanted. Is some of that just down to personal taste? Sure. I like thrillers and psychological horror a lot more than gory scares. But I think the main problem I have with the turn Men takes is the way the change affects the overall feel and intention of the film.

Here’s the thing: Men fundamentally feels like a horror movie that has something to say. But when the straightforward twists into the surreal, it feels like we move further away from whatever that message is supposed to be. The longer Harper’s “final girl” showdown went on, the less invested in it I found myself.

The last third of Men is meant to shock and disgust. Arguably, that’s also what the beginning of the film is meant to do, too – albeit in a very different way. It’s ambitious, but as Men struggles to make its deeper meaning ring true, the dramatic final act shift feels more pretentious than impressive.

In the end, sometimes reality is scarier than our nightmares.

Men premieres in theaters May 20.