Review: ‘Men’ (2022), starring Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear

May 18, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jessie Buckley in “Men” (Photo by Kevin Baker/A24)

“Men” (2022)

Directed by Alex Garland

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the fictional Village Kotson, England, the horror flick “Men” has a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one black person) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman, who is grieving over the death of her estranged husband, rents a home in the English countryside and has a series of disturbing encounters with men. 

Culture Audience: “Men” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching horror movies that use abstract and often-gruesome scenes to convey messages about relationships between men and women.

Rory Kinnear in “Men” (Photo by Kevin Baker/A24)

Filled with symbolism intended to make viewers uncomfortable, “Men” has incisive observations about grief, guilt, toxic masculinity and female empowerment—all wrapped up in an atmospheric horror movie. Written and directed by Alex Garland, “Men” is the type of horror film that is best appreciated by people who don’t expect all horror films to follow a certain formula where a “villain” is defeated at the end. In fact, the movie leaves it open to interpretation if there are any “villains” and how much of the story occurs inside the mind of the story’s protagonist.

“Men” (which takes place in England) begins with a striking and disturbing image of protagonist Harper Marlow (played by Jessie Buckley) watching a man die while she’s in her apartment home. Harper is British, in her early 30s, and she works in an unspecified job where she has to deal with data figures. As she looks out her apartment window, she’s shocked to see a man falling. This scene is played in slow-motion, as if it’s some kind of dream. But it’s no dream. It’s a flashback memory that Harper is having.

And the man falling out of the building was Harper’s estranged husband James (played by Paapa Essiedu), who died in this tragic fall. His death happened on the day that Harper told James that she wanted him to move out of their home after they had a brutal argument. Harper had already told James that she was going to divorce him. Some other things happened on that day to explain why Harper has a bloody nose. Whether or not James’ death was an accident or a suicide is discussed in the movie, which makes it clear that James was definitely not murdered.

After this horrifying opening scene for “Men,” Harper is then shown arriving at an English countryside mansion called Kotson Manor, which she is renting for two weeks in a place called Village Kotson. It will be a getaway retreat for her after James’ death. It’s never detailed how long ago that James has died, but it’s implied that his death was fairly recent, because Harper booked the rental under the name Mrs. Harper Marlow, out of habit.

The owner of the house is a middle-aged man named Geoffrey (played by Rory Kinnear), who has nervous energy and is very talkative when he gives Harper a tour of the house. When Geoffrey asks Harper where her husband is, Harper makes a comment that implies that she’s divorced, but she hasn’t changed the “Mrs.” part of her name yet. Harper also tells Geoffrey that she has kept her married surname, but she plans to change that too.

James’ death isn’t the only thing that Harper lies about to Geoffrey. There’s a baby grand piano in the house. James asks Harper if she knows how to play piano. Harper says no. James comments, “Me neither.” However, when Harper is alone in the house much later in the movie, she plays the piano. And she’s clearly a very skilled piano player. It’s the movie’s way of showing how women sometimes hide their talent to make men feel more secure.

“Men” has several religious symbols from Christianity’s Old Testament, including the Garden of Eden and the biblical story of the birth of humankind. The first thing that Harper does when she arrives at the house is eat an apple from the apple tree on the front lawn. Geoffrey jokes to Harper that the apple she’s eating is “forbidden fruit.”

Geoffrey, who is upbeat and friendly, apparently lives alone, since he doesn’t mention anyone else who lives in the house. Harper has a very good first impression of this well-kept estate, which she later describes as a “dream country house.” Geoffrey seems very confident that Harper will take good care of the house before he leaves. But it won’t be the last time that Harper will see Geoffrey.

Harper’s best friend is an opinionated and confident American woman named Riley (played by Gayle Rankin), who is close to Harper’s age and who also lives in England. Riley is a supportive and attentive friend to Harper. Harper and Riley are shown having FaceTime conversations throughout the movie. In one of their conversations, when Riley becomes concerned about Harper’s safety, Riley offers to go to this country estate to give Harper some company, but Harper declines the offer. Later in the story, it becomes clear how this friendship represents the power of female solidarity.

Harper thinks she’s going to have a peaceful and quiet vacation at this home in the English countryside. But soon, strange things start happening. While out for a walk in an open field, Harper uses her phone to take a photo of the lush green scenery. But she’s horrified to see a naked man (also played by Kinnear) in the distance suddenly appear in the photo. The man, who is bald and has a stocky build, is completely nude and just staring at her silently in a creepy manner.

Harper goes back to the house, calls Riley, and shows the photo to Riley. They both have a laugh over this awkward situation. But it won’t be the last time that Harper sees this bald, naked man.

While taking a walk through the woods, Harper come across a tunnel, which has an unusually long echo whenever she makes sounds in the tunnel. Harper is charmed and amused by this echo, but her whimsical moment comes to an abrupt end when she sees a shadowy figure of a man at the end of the tunnel. The man, who is wearing a business suit, appears to be watching her.

And all of a sudden, the man starts running after Harper. She frantically runs away, goes in the house, and locks the front door. Harper looks out the windows and doesn’t see any sign of this stranger. She assumes that the man lost track of her when she ran away in the woods, so she’s fairly certain that he wasn’t able to follow her to the house.

Harper then calls Riley to tell her about this odd experience, but Harper decides to shake it off and give Riley a video tour of the house. As she gives the video tour, unbeknownst to Harper, the naked man is walking around on the house’s front lawn and peering through the house’s front windows. He also sees the apple tree and starts eating one of the apples. Eventually, Harper sees the man, who tries to break into the house. Harper calls the police, and the man is arrested.

The rest of “Men” shows Harper having varying degrees of hostile experiences with some of the men who live in the area. Viewers can easily see that most of these men look like Geoffrey, including a church vicar, the naked man, a cop, a pub owner and two farmhand brothers who are both customers in the pub. But is something supernatural going on in Village Kotson, or is it all an elaborate hallucination from Harper?

There’s also a young male character named Samuel (played by Zak Rothera-Oxley), whom Harper first meets when she goes to a church for some meditative solitude. Behind the church is a cemetery. Samuel is sitting on the church steps, wearing a face mask of a blonde woman, when he asks Harper if she wants to play a game. When Harper politely says no, Samuel calls her a “stupid bitch.” Samuel is also rude to the vicar and tells the vicar to “fuck off” when the vicar tells Samuel to stop bothering Harper.

Are there any women in this village, besides Harper? Yes. After the unnamed naked man is arrested (he is mute, has no identification, and is presumed to be homeless), a female police officer named Freida (played by Sarah Twomey) takes Harper’s statement with empathy and professionalism. The 999 phone dispatcher/police operator (voiced by Sonoya Mizuno), who takes Harper’s call about the intruder, is also a woman, although she is only heard over the phone.

However, the movie is really about the characters played by Buckley and Kinnear, who give compelling and admirable performances. The flashback scenes in “Men” demonstrate that although Harper is on a “getaway” trip, she can’t really get away from her feelings about James’ death and how their impending divorce had an impact on their lives. The movie’s pacing might be a little slow for some viewers, but the last 15 minutes of “Men” are a bold and bizarre knockout.

What does all of this symbolism mean in the story of “Men”? The movie shows in subtle and not-so-subtle ways what it’s like to be a woman in a world where men have most of the power and want to keep it that way. A woman who is independent, intelligent and confident is seen as a “threat” to this dominance. And this male insecurity comes out in various ways, such as trying to make women feel weak and inferior to men.

One of the most telling scenes in the movie is at the church, when the vicar talks to Harper, who confides in him on how her husband James died. At first, the vicar seems compassionate in comforting Harper. But when the vicar finds out how Harper’s husband died, this impromptu counseling session ends on a sour note because of rude and insensitive comments that the vicar makes to Harper, as shown in the “Men” trailer: “You must wonder why you drove him to it … Might it be true that if you had given him a chance to apologize, he’d still be alive?”

Even “nice guy” Geoffrey has his moments of sexist condescension. When he gives the house tour to Harper, he says to her with a smirky grin: “Ladies, watch what you flush.” He adds, “Septic tank,” as if to say that the septic tank can get easily clogged. Geoffrey’s snide comment is a subtle menstruation reference to women and girls being told not to flush sanitary pads down toilets. Geoffrey could have easily told Harper about the septic tank without making it sound like women are more likely than men to clog toilets.

The series of increasingly horrifying encounters that happen in “Men” range from sexist comments to outright violent misogyny. Some of it happens in Harper’s flashbacks too. The movie takes a scathing look at how male egos are intertwined with society’s idea of what outward masculinity should look like. And the movie also shows how men are taught to hide their inner pain and insecurities, which misogynistic men often take out and inflict on women.

“Men” also shows how toxic masculinity breeds more toxic masculinity. This toxic masculinity can morph into many different forms—and it isn’t always violent. It’s shown in conversations between men and women when men talk over and interrupt women, to try to assert male dominance. It’s shown when men dismiss women’s thoughts, feelings, intelligence, skills and worth as less important than men’s.

It’s shown when men are hostile to women who are or could be in leadership positions over men. It’s shown when men excuse, enable or tolerate horrible actions from men, but give harsher judgment to women who do the same horrible things. It’s shown when men are quick to blame women when women are wronged and are the victims. It’s shown when men think they know best on how women should live their lives.

“Men” will frustrate some viewers who won’t understand the symbolism in this richly layered movie. People who have no knowledge about Judeo-Christian religious beliefs might also be confused over what the apple tree means in the story. (Look up the story of Adam and Eve, if you don’t know it.) But for people who get what the messages in “Men” are all about, the main takeaway should be that toxic masculinity is everywhere, and people really can’t escape it. “Men” also sends an impactful message that grief should be honestly confronted (not avoided), and women need to tap into their own strength to overcome the damage of misogyny.

A24 will release “Men” in U.S. cinemas on May 20, 2022.

Review: ‘No Time to Die’ (2021), starring Daniel Craig

September 29, 2021

by Carla Hay

Daniel Craig in “No Time to Die” (Photo by Nicola Dove/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

“No Time to Die” (2021)

Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga

Culture Representation: Taking place in Italy, Cuba, the United Kingdom, Chile and other locations around the world, the action film “No Time to Die” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few people of African, Latino and Asian heritage) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: British superspy James Bond goes after yet another villain who wants to take over the world. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of James Bond movie fans, “No Time to Die” will appeal primarily to fans of Daniel Craig or people who are interested globe-trotting spy capers.

Rami Malek in “No Time to Die” (Photo by Nicola Dove/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

The often-delayed and overly hyped “No Time to Die” is not the best James Bond movie to star Daniel Craig, but it’s got enough thrilling action to make up for some hokey dialogue and questionable creative decisions. It’s a guaranteed crowd-pleaser for people who are inclined to like James Bond films, flaws and all. It’s a harder film to like for people expecting something more original than the usual chase scenes and “villain trying to take over the world” plot.

The last 15 minutes of “No Time to Die” are the only moments when the James Bond franchise does something that it’s never done before. But until then, this 163-minute movie (yes, that’s two hours and 43 minutes) becomes a bit bloated and repetitive with things that have already been done many times before in James Bond movies, which are based on Ian Fleming’s novels. The action scenes are not the franchise’s best, but they’re surely the most expensive.

Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (the first American to direct a James Bond film), “No Time to Die” is being marketed as the final James Bond movie to star Craig as the British superspy. Fukunaga co-wrote the “No Time to Die” screenplay with Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Having four people write the “No Time to Die” screenplay doesn’t mean that the movie turned out better than the far superior James Bond movies starring Craig—namely 2006’s “Casino Royale” and 2012’s “Skyfall.” In fact, the too-long running time of “No Time to Die” gives the impression that the movie is precisely this long because of “too many cooks in the kitchen” for this screenplay.

“No Time to Die” is the equivalent of a long and rambling introduction to a farewell speech that delivers a knockout punch, which itself takes a long time to get to the heart of the matter. For a movie this long, it might disappoint viewers to know that Rami Malek’s Lyutsifer Safin villain character isn’t in the movie is much as the “No Time to Die” movie trailers make it look like he is. His biggest scenes are in the beginning (when he’s shown about 20 to 25 years before, doing a revenge killing of the mother of one of the movie’s characters) and in the end, when he has the inevitable major showdown with Bond.

Fans of Ana de Armas (who plays a James Bond collaborator named Paloma) might be disappointed to see that she’s not in “No Time to Die” as much as the movie’s marketing gives the impression that she is. She’s literally there just to be eye candy who can fight, in a predictable James Bond film sequence where he joins forces with a mysterious beauty who can go into battle while wearing a slinky dress. After this fight sequence, she’s not seen or heard from again in the movie.

However, the movie does deliver in continuing the story arc that began with “Casino Royale” of James Bond as a complex man who’s capable of having his heart broken. Bond had his heart broken in “Casino Royale” with (spoiler alert) the death of Vesper Lynd (played by Eva Green), who has been described as the greatest love of his life. Vesper’s death is referred to in “No Time to Die,” when he visits her grave and acts like someone who will never get over this loss.

In “No Time to Die,” Bond gets a new heartbreak. And this “heartbroken” Bond is the reason why “No Time to Die” often seems to drag with so much moping and brooding from Bond. “No Time to Die” constantly hits viewers over the head with Bond wallowing in his bitterness, at the expense of giving more screen time to the chief villain Safrin so viewers can get to know Safrin better. Safrin, whose face has burn scars but doesn’t show any signs of aging, ends up being a two-dimensional character with an unimaginative backstory and a voice that sounds like American actor Malek trying to do a vague European accent.

Safrin sure likes to pout a lot, while he saunters in and out of the movie like a villain in search of a memorable personality. Between the moodiness of Safrin and Bond, there’s enough pouting and sulking to make you wonder if they’ve watched too many “Twilight” movies. Even though Safrin doesn’t appear to age, he’s not a vampire, which is a relief to anyone who might think he’ll sparkle like a “Twilight” vampire.

Why is James Bond heartbroken this time? It’s shown at the beginning of the film that he’s in a happy and loving relationship with psychiatrist Madeleine Swann (played by Léa Seydoux), the French native who’s young enough to be his daughter and who first hooked up with him in 2015’s “Spectre.” Madeleine and Bond (who has retired from MI6 and the spy business) are living together in bliss in Matera, Italy.

However, Madeleine has a secret from her past that has come back to haunt her. This secret is revealed early on the movie to viewers. However, it’s a surprise to Bond, when he and Madeleine are ambushed in their home by assassins who’ve been sent by Safrin. It leads to one of the movie’s best action sequences, with high-speed car chases and close-call shootouts.

Bond and Madeleine escape, of course, but Bond can’t forgive her for keeping the secret that led to them almost being murdered. He puts her on a train so that she can safely get away from the villains. “How will I know you’re OK?,” Madeleine asks tearfully. Bond coldly replies, “You won’t. You won’t ever see me again.”

Is this a James Bond film or a soap opera? At any rate, the movie then fast-forwards five years after Bond’s breakup with Madeleine. Several of the actors who joined the James Bond franchise as Bond co-workers during the Daniel Craig era also return for “No Time to Die.” They include Ben Whishaw as Q, Ralph Fiennes as M, Rory Kinnear as Tanner and Naomie Harris as Eve Moneypenny, who are all perfectly fine in their supporting roles. “No Time to Die” still doesn’t reveal much about who these supporting characters are outside of their work, except in one scene that reveals that Q lives alone, he likes to cook gourmet meals, and he has a sphynx cat.

Joining the James Bond franchise for the first time is Lashana Lynch, who plays Nomi, the spy who inherited the 007 identifying number after Bond retired. Nomi has some standout action scenes in the film and could end up being a very popular character for the James Bond franchise. Nomi is not the type of female character in a James Bond movie who’s going to show up for a shootout in a gown and high heels, although that would certainly be her prerogative.

Nomi is first seen interacting with Bond when she goes undercover as a flirtatious party girl whom he meets at a bar. Nomi gives him a ride home on her scooter after she deliberately disables his car. When she reveals her true identity to Bond and tells him that she’s been assigned his previous number, Nomi confidently informs him: “I’m 007. You probably thought they’d retire it.” Bond says nonchalantly, “It’s just a number.”

Everyone knows that Bond isn’t going to stay retired, once he finds out about the big problems his colleagues are facing. What’s at stake in “No Time to Die”? There’s a convoluted plot explanation in the movie, but essentially it’s about a manufactured poisonous gas where numerous nanobots can enter a human body and cause people to die after their skin breaks out in bloody blotches.

A (cliché alert) Russian scientist named Valdo Obruchev (played by David Dencik) developed this deadly weapon gas, which was originally intended to be a way to implant the DNA of people with outstanding military skills, in order to create super soldiers. Safrin predictably recruited this corrupt scientist with the enticement of great riches. Safrin has a (cliché alert) secret compound as his headquarters, so there’s a race against time for Bond and his colleagues to find Safrin’s lair. This compound has a biodome with poisonous plants that are used for the deadly gas.

Meanwhile, Bond is tracked down by two CIA operatives named Felix Leiter (played by Jeffrey Wright) and Logan Ashe (played by Billy Magnussen), who successfully convince Bond to come out of retirement to track down where this gas is being manufactured. It takes a while for Bond to change is mind, which is one of the reasons why the movie drags on for too long. Wright has played no-nonsense government officials many times before, but Magnussen (who’s usually typecast as a comedic and goofy “pretty boy”) has not.

Magnussen’s constant grinning and mugging for the camera are an unwelcome distraction. The Logan character even gets on Bond’s nerves, when he comments that Logan “smiles too much.” It’s an obvious foreshadowing of things that are eventually revealed about Logan. It’s through Felix and Logan that Bond is put in touch with Paloma, whose only purpose in the movie is to go to a black-tie party with Bond and then get involved in a shootout at the party.

Christoph Waltz makes brief appearances in “No Time to Die” as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the “Spectre” villain who is being held at Cuba’s notorious Guantanamo Bay detention center. Blofeld does the expected smirks and taunts when Bond and his colleagues find out that Blofeld knows more about Safrin than he’s willing to tell. But ultimately, Blofeld is just there as filler in this overstuffed movie. The characters of Felix, Ashe, Paloma didn’t need to be in this movie at all. The story would still have worked without creating these extra characters.

For a movie with four screenwriters, “No Time to Die” has some incredibly mediocre dialogue that’s not much better than a B-movie. And (cringe alert), James Bond utters more than a few bad puns. The top assassin on Safrin’s team is an almost-robotic mercenary named Primo (played by Dali Benssalah), who has a false eye that’s a prop with its own story arc. The trope of a villain with a missing eye has been so over-used in movies that it’s disappointing that the “No Time to Die” filmmakers couldn’t come up with something more original.

There are some moments in “No Time to Die” that seem to be delibrately slapstick and hokey, such as in the fight scene at the black-tie party. More than once in this scene, Bond and Paloma go to the bar to swig a few alcoholic drinks in between the violent shootout. Bond and Paloma smirk at each other as if to say, “We’re such badasses, we can get some drinking done while we’re in the middle of a shooutout.”

Another shootout scene that’s a lot more problematic is when Bond shoots a gun at close range at Safrin while Safrin is literally holding a child hostage. Bond misses his target, but it’s an incredibly irresponsible action, considering that Safrin could’ve used the child as a shield and the child could’ve been shot and killed. Or the child could’ve been accidentally shot just by being that close to Safrin.

When viewers see who this child is in the movie, it makes Bond’s decision to shoot even more mind-boggling. Yes, it’s only a movie, but misguided violent scenes like this involving an innocent child do a disservice to the Bond legacy. It makes Bond look like a reckless amateur.

Of course, because “No Time to Die” is about heartbroken Bond, there’s more in this movie that’s meant to be tearjerking moments than ever before in a James Bond film. It’s going to make people feel incredibly sentimental for Craig’s long and mostly impressive journey as James Bond.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures will release “No Time to Die” on various dates in cinemas around the world. The U.K. release date is September 30, 2021. The U.S. release date is October 8, 2021.

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