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Nathan Weinbender reviews " Men"

Alex Garland’s Men is either the most audacious film of the year or the goofiest, though maybe those qualities aren’t mutually exclusive, because an artist can’t take a wild swing like this without looking a little ridiculous.

Not since Darren Aronofsky’s mother! has a movie from a major director been so meticulously calculated to antagonize and alienate viewers. Both films are allegorical nightmares about man’s capacity for narcissism and cruelty toward women. Both films are set in large, isolated houses, with a symbolic protagonist who wanders from one increasingly strange incident to another. And both films practically dare you to take them seriously, wearing a straight face as they grow more and more unhinged.

Men is Garland’s third film as director, following the brilliant one-two punch of Ex Machina and Annihilation. Those movies were heady and challenging, to be sure, but they’re family-friendly crowd pleasers compared to this one. It does sometimes feel like Garland is traipsing into familiar allegorical territory but with the air of a brave artist exposing a previously undiscovered truth (as a friend of mine put it, “you know, stuff women have known since the beginning of time”). But I’m less interested in what Men is trying to say than how it’s saying it: There are dozens of films that have more effectively articulated both the physical and existential threat that men pose, but none that have expressed them quite like this.

Jessie Buckley stars as a distraught woman named Harper, who has rented a centuries-old cottage in the lush English countryside for the weekend. She is recovering from a trauma in her recent past, and she wants to be left alone. That, of course, does not happen, because a naked man covered in lesions and scabs starts peeping in the windows and trying to force his way in.

The local police aren’t much help, and Harper’s unease is further compounded by encounters with even more men, all of them played in various disguises by the character actor Rory Kinnear. This casting decision is perhaps the most glaring example of the film’s flagrant literalism. I think Garland wants you to pick the movie apart, to sift through its pieces looking for symbolism, and to argue about whether they mean anything at all. Even the film’s biblical allusions, so broad that the most oblivious heretics will still notice them, seem almost deliberately clunky.

By the time Men reaches its operatic, blood-soaked finale, full of the sorts of grotesqueries that would be at home in a Hieronymous Bosch painting or a Hellraiser movie, it’s as if Garland wants you to laugh at the sheer nuttiness of his creation.

Perhaps I’m giving Garland too much credit. Perhaps Men was always meant to be a sincere, solemn work of introspection and transgression, and the fact that I found myself laughing along with its sickening indulgences means that it has failed. But it’s so rare these days to see a film that wants to inspire complicated (maybe even contradictory) feelings, that demands you have a reaction to it, even if it’s an ugly one. I admire the sheer bravado it takes to release a film this confrontational and weird. It’s not for everybody. In fact, it might not be for most people. You’ve been warned.
Nathan Weinbender is a film critic and one of the regular co-hosts for Spokane Public Radio’s “Movies 101” heard Friday evenings at 6:30 here on KPBX.