Areal men to be the same in this body-horror fairy tale from Alex Garland, the writer-director behind the adventurous sci-fi quirks Ex Machina and Destruction† Borrowed by Jessie Buckley (who single-handedly edited the flawed 2020 screen adaptation of Iain Reid’s equally surreal I’m thinking of ending things), it’s a playfully twisted affair—perhaps not quite as profound as it seems, but with enough squishy metaphorical slime to ensure that his musings on textbook masculine features are rarely dull and at times delightfully disgusting.
Buckley is Harper, the survivor of an abusive relationship whose partner, James (Paapa Essiedu), tried to make her take responsibility for his own urban self-destruction (“you’ll have to live with it on your conscience”). Now she has escaped for a fortnight to a green environment in “the dream mansion” – with an emphasis on “dream”. From the oversaturated palette of Rob Hardy’s cinematography (fields so green they glow, flowers popping in purple-blue) to the gory, chocolate-box interiors conjured up by production designer Mark Digby and set designer Michelle Day, we find ourselves in a world of big bad wolves ( that ax by the fire comes in handy) and poisoned apples. “Forbidden Fruit” declares rental homeowner Geoffrey, a picky, Tim Nice-But-Dim character whom Harper clearly describes as “a very specific type†
The same can be said of all the men she encounters in her rural retreat, of the condescending pastor who touches her knee while mockingly blaming her for her guilt (“men to do hit women sometimes”) to the local police officer who rolls his eyes when Harper gets angry at being terrorized by a naked stalker. Crucially, all of these men are played by one actor, such as Rory Kinnear glides deftly between identities, alternately donning the stereotypical cloaks of his gender. Imagine a minimalist one-man production of Neil LaBute’s In the company of menbut with more sticky gloop.
The fact that Harper never acknowledges the similarities between these male characters indicates that it’s a device – a dramatic invention that some viewers may not even notice at first, but makes perfect sense emotionally. Made me think of Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s animated quirk anomaly, in which the central character is ravaged by the “Fregoli madness”: that everyone else (except the titular Lisa) is the same person – blessed with the same doll face and voiced by the same actor, Tom Noonan. Here, the uniformity of male characters and their traits (selfish, controlling, patronizing, predatory) is presented as both a universal truth and a personal response. This is the world seen through Harper’s eyes, shaped by her experiences and memories – fantastic perhaps, yet with an essential truth.
There is a strong thread from wicker manstyle folk horror in Menvisions of the Green Man screaming from a church letter and running amok in fields and gardens, and of masked children whose childish taunts are at once foolish and terrifying. By some strange coincidence (completely coincidental, but thematically coincidental) there are also eerie echoes of Sky’s current female-focused TV adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoosfeaturing the supernaturally isolated village in which Harper is trapped resembling a cross between Midwich, Summerisle and Sandford from Edgar Wright’s Busy hassle†
And then there’s the straw dog-inflected siege of the third act, in which Garland throws caution to the wind and plunges deep into the plasma pool of Cronenbergian horror, as vomited masculinity gives birth to itself in an orgy of physical mutation. It’s a fun finale that instantly reminds of Brian Yuzna’s spectacular body shunts Society † or, perhaps more pertinently, Neil Jordan’s lupine transformations The company of wolvesadapted by co-writer Angela Carter from her own short story collection The Bloody Room†
A choral score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow beautifully bridges the gap between the film’s modern British pastoral setting and timeless Euro-Gothic shivers, with human voices and unearthly sounds dancing around earthly soundscapes that seem to be internal and external at once – real and imagined. It may not be subtle, but it’s endearingly unhinged, serving as a timely reminder that the plastic reality of fantasy and horror remains a hearty primordial soup for the cinema of ideas.
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