The A24 film Men (2022) is Alex Garland’s newest and third directorial project. His previous works include Ex Machina and Annihaliation. It is evident that weird, cosmic horror is Garland’s forte and Men is certainly no exception. It is a folk, body horror tale in which the protagonist, Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley), is staying at an isolated farmhouse in the remote village Cotson. It is a charming place, with expansive furnished rooms, floor-to-ceiling windows, a elegant garden with an exquisite apple tree. The perfect getaway for a woman who needs time to grieve after witnessing her husband kill himself.
Loneliness is a sin for women in horror
Men is an artistic piece in every sense of the word. After getting her things settled, Harper wonders on her own to explore a nearby forest. She follows a path with flourishing green vegetation and laughs to herself when small rain drops start to fall. The imagery is gentle, even if it is exhaustively comparing womanhood to nature.
When Harper wanders to a tunnel, she plays with the acoustics and sings as loud as she can. She is at peace, hope and comfort beaming in her eyes. But of course, this is ruined when a mysterious, shadowy figure at the end of the tunnel stands up and starts running at her. It is a reminder to Harper that, whether she stays or leaves home, women cannot be left alone.
Harper wants, and has the right, to be alone and she is going to fight for it.
Any time a woman is alone in a horror movie – hell, in any movie – it is evident that she will succumb to danger one way or another. When the strange man from the tunnel appears at Harper’s rental home and threatens to break in, Harper calls the police, who tell her the man must be harmless but arrest him nonetheless. Harper later facetimes her friend Riley (Gayle Rankin), who immediately offers to do the four hour drive and stay with Harper. Harper refuses the company, to which many of us in the theater (myself included) immediately shouted “no!” How can she be alone when she is obviously in danger?
However, I thought about it more and I read Heather O’Neill’s essay on the movie, who pointed out that, “[Harper] has come to be by herself, and she is going to work through the terror of it.” Harper wants, and has the right, to be alone. And she is going to fight for it.
There are other small moments in the movie that I was grateful for. In the beginning, the man who owns the house, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), gives her a tour. In one scene there is a room with a baby grand piano and Geoffrey asked if she plays, to which she responds “no.” The host admits he also doesn’t, and they continue with the rest of the tour. But later on, it turns out that Harper knows how to play rather well.
I loved this little detail and the strength it carries. Personally, when I have admitted to a man that I can do something, more often than not he immediately needs visual proof. In this case, it’s evident that Harper did not have the emotional space or energy to prove to the host that she has the ability to do something he cannot. I can see it in my head: if she said “yes,” he would pester her to play the piano until she finally gives in just to shut him up. He would make some comment, it would be a whole thing that didn’t need to happen. Sometimes it’s just easier to not admit to men when you can do something.
A little goes a long way.
Where Men has its strengths also lie its weaknesses. The entire movie is dipped, and eventually drowns, in visual metaphors. While folk horrors rely heavily on visual metaphors, there needs to be substance to the plot and this is where Men lacks. For example, the consistent focal point is a church tabernacle whose clay artwork consists of a leaf-man on one side, and a woman with a spread-open vagina on the other. Garland goes back to this scene often, holding the viewer’s hand in case we didn’t get the reference that historically, specifically in colonial Christian societies, womanhood is defined by biology.
Another example: unless it is in fear, women historically do not scream a lot in movies. Men scream and shout as loud as they want, whether it is in anger or joy or sorrow, because in a patriarchal world men can and need to be heard. There is a moment in Men when Harper visits a church and, after exploring its artifacts, sits in a pew and screams as loud as she can. She is overcome by grief and mental reruns of her husband falling to his death. And sometimes screaming is just what a person needs to do to let it all out.
I want to see women scream more, and not just because she is running for her life. But then a priest walks up to her and points out how he noticed her scream and how she must be tormented, an immediate shutdown of her emotions. Later in the movie, we see that famous visual trope of Harper dunking her head underwater in a bathtub and screaming. This is so no one, not even in a remote house in a meagerly populated town, can hear. And it is certainly no coincidence that her mouth looks an awful lot like Men’s visual depiction of a human vagina.
Blood blood blood
Let’s not forget the bloody climactic birth scene. It is set off by the visual of apples falling from a tree, an old metaphor for fertility. Soon, all the men in the movie who either terrorized or threatened Harper’s safety give birth to each other in a tumultuous depiction of the female human life cycle. Garland’s imagery is trying very hard to prove that gender is fluid and not simply biological, but that gets lost in the bloody sauce. There is also plenty of phallus symbolism, specifically with a bloody knife, Harper’s only weapon. Symbolism meager at best.
When the movie ends after the seemingly endless birth cycle, Riley finally meets Harper at Cotson and the audience learns Riley is pregnant. At this point of the movie, that little detail is thrown in there for no reason. There is fundamentally no purpose for this detail, which maybe is the whole point. Who knows? I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m putting more thought into it than the movie’s creators.
Men, in short, is an all too real story of the danger women face when being alone. It is about female isolation and men’s interference with that personal space. It is not nuanced in it’s message of what happens when women are alone. Horror movies have been telling us that for as long as they’ve existed.
Don’t get me wrong, Men is well made and well written. The acting is incredible and bring this character-driven story to life. The smallest details and simplicity are where it shines best. But the cumbersome plot sadly outweighs that.
At the end of the day, Men is another movie written by a man trying to understand the female experience as simplistically, binarized, and white as possible. Its goal in not reducing our bodies to our parts fails. And, frankly, I am tired.
(2.5 / 5)
*All photos screenshot from the movie’s YouTube trailer*
Movies n TV
The Beach House, a Film Review
The Beach House (2019) is a body horror film directed and written by Jeffrey A. Brown starring Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, and Jake Weber.
The Beach House (2020) is a body horror film directed and written by Jeffrey A. Brown. This film stars Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Jake Weber, and Maryann Nagel. As of this review, this film is only available on Shudder.
Desperate to rekindle their strained love, Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) escape to a beach getaway. They soon learn to find that family friends of Randall’s father, Mitch (Jake Weber), and Jane (Maryann Nagel), also had a similar idea. After getting used to each other, a mysterious fog engulfs the town. Unfortunately, they realize too late the danger they find themselves in.
What I Like
Body horror gets under my skin, and The Beach House certainly lives up to the standard. There’s something magical about creatures terraforming your body to their preferred environment, turning humans into nothing more than conscious prisoners in their own flesh. While I wouldn’t consider this film the most traumatic or unsettling example, it utilizes wonderfully grotesque scenes.
Aside from the body horror, the film drops a few Cosmic Horror–or Lovecraftian–vibes that go together perfectly. Another favored genre of mine, this combination ensures the odds are overwhelmingly against our human leads.
Beyond the grotesque, visuals might not overwhelm but certainly succeed in their goal. Several scenes provide an intentionally tranquil experience that contrasts with the grotesques and improves their effectiveness.
In terms of performance, each actor hits their mark. While some roles require less effort, each contributes to the plot as intended. The standout performance goes to Liana Liberato’s Emily, who acts as co-lead. She simply has the most to work with and lives up to the part.
Tired Tropes and Trigger Warnings
As “body horror” should indicate, this film will hit hard for the more squeamish viewer. While horror by nature has some amount of grotesque, body horror brings that grotesque to the next level. While I don’t particularly find The Beach House hitting harder than its competition, it certainly respects its chosen genre.
What I Dislike or Considerations
A few scenic montages may hit or miss depending on your interpretation. While I have my own theories, that speculation goes beyond the scope of this review. Many of these scenes overlap more philosophical conversations and musings that may annoy or add layers. This strategy seems a common practice in Cosmic Horror, which forces characters to rationalize the irrational.
It’s hard for me to understand how secretive or known this event is supposed to be in the film’s world. Individuals know something outside of the town, with evidence implying governmental knowledge. This information creates a contrivance–perhaps, even a plot hole–because the characters had to reach this isolated town without any opposition.
One of the visuals didn’t exactly grab me. While I won’t go into too much detail, an effect looked too visually similar to a common animal that barely survives rain. It’s hard to be threatened by that. It also doesn’t exactly match up with some of the other visuals. Even the creatures that look similar to it still look different enough to provide a more alien assumption.
There are moments when the infected chase our main characters by crawling at them. While the context works, with injured characters helping to sell them, I can’t help but find these scenes amusing as opposed to frightening. Yes, it’s certainly visually different from the plethora of zombies out there, but it’s also less frightening than zombies that leisurely walk to their targets.
The Beach House combines cosmic and body horror to create an uncomfortable film that tests its characters. For those who enjoy these genres, it will certainly entertain you, but I doubt it will frighten you. I imagine the mood to watch it again might strike me, but I’m not entirely certain it will stand the test of time. (3 / 5)
If this movie suits your fancy and you want more, Honeymoon seems an appropriate recommendation.
Movies n TV
Every Secret Thing, a Film Review
Every Secret Thing (2014) is a crime thriller directed by Amy J. Berg and written by Nicole Holofcener, based on Laura Lippman’s novel.
Every Secret Thing (2014) is a crime thriller directed by Amy J. Berg and written by Nicole Holofcener. This R-rated film stars Diane Lane, Danielle Macdonald, Dakota Fanning, and Elizabeth Banks. Based on Laura Lippman’s novel of the same name, the film adaptation is accessible through MAX and DirecTV.
When a little girl goes missing, Nancy Porter (Elizabeth Banks) spirals into an all too familiar tale. As pressure mounts, Alice Manning (Danielle Macdonald) and Ronnie Fuller (Dakota Fanning) become the leading suspects. The strained frenemies unravel under the attention and reminders of their shared past.
What I Like
The film unravels in a non-chronological structure but makes it easy for the viewer to follow. It helps that the age difference clearly divides the younger actors, who change actors. One casting choice resembles their older counterpart, and the acting reflects a strong direction for their shared role.
Unreliable narration remains expertly communicated with scenes that change perspectives depending on whose perspective we view them from. This choice adds a reason to view the film twice, providing extra ambiguity for some of these events.
The camera gets up close and personal to an uncomfortable degree, which almost certainly presses the actors’ performances. This choice places the viewer in the character’s perspective and limits us from others’ perspectives to add extra credence to these biases.
Every Secret Thing provides a spiraling mystery that unravels with several twists and turns. Assuming the novel provided the outline, this film executes these points and keeps a consistently engaging experience throughout the runtime.
Tired Tropes and Trigger Warnings
Child abuse and neglect remain the central plot points of Every Secret Thing. Little of this abuse appears in scenes, but there is no escaping the danger children are in throughout the film.
Self-harm and suicide are shown throughout the film (once in the case of suicide) through one specific character. It isn’t glorified or romanticized nor addressed with particular sensitivity. For those sensitive to these subjects, it might be triggering.
Racism, the assumed motive for the bi-racial victims, plays a small role in the film’s narrative. However, character motives remain more complex, but going further spoils some elements. This film decision does create the reality that bi-racial children are the victims of child neglect and abuse in the film with little additional context. It does invite uncomfortable speculation, but speculation it would be.
Sexual assault is another concern for viewers, specifically statutory rape. This issue seems particularly mismanaged, considering the survivor remains an antagonist. One can be both survivor of assault and an antagonist of a film without needing to discredit the assault. While little appears of this issue, and the manipulation angle can indicate a perspective shift, it’s hard to refute how the film wants to represent this attack.
What I Dislike
Loosely tied to the above point, one character seems mentally off and purposely so. This point doesn’t inherently create an issue, but there seems to be a choice to make this character a mastermind. Perhaps this is better addressed in the book, but the execution is far from perfect here.
A newspaper montage reveals essential information which feels oddly misplaced. Practically the entire setup for the film appears through this montage, which creates the necessity to read these headlines in the minimal time given.
As a horror, nothing but the events are haunting. Children being abused or kidnapped always haunts, but the terror of this remains secondary to the mystery. While the mystery is nice, this film won’t particularly scare the seasoned horror fan.
Every Secret Thing unravels a mystery of opportunism, selfishness, and deception. While the movie won’t haunt the viewer, it certainly unravels a mystery that shocks them. The nuanced and deceptive characters add a layer of engagement that creates a unique experience, but I doubt this movie will linger in my mind.
(2.5 / 5)
Movies n TV
Quid Pro Woe
We’ve now reached episode six of Tim Burton’s Wednesday. And after the last episode, this one did not disappoint.
We start with Wednesday attempting to contact Goody Addams. Last episode, if you’ll recall, Morticia explained the difference between a psychic dove and a raven. Since Goody Addams was the last raven psychic in the family line, it’s got to be her that trains Wednesday.
But her seance is a failure, and Wednesday is interrupted by a magazine note shoved under the door. It says to meet someone at a crypt for answers.
When she gets there, it turns out that her friends have put together a surprise birthday party for her. Before she can cut the cake, however, she has a vision.
Goody Addams tells her that she must find a specific gate. After some investigation, Wednesday discovers it’s the gate to the old Gates house.
Wednesday goes to investigate, but she isn’t the only one. She is nearly discovered by Mayor Walker. He is also investigating the Gates family, even though they’re all reported to be dead. He leaves a message for Sheriff Galpin and is almost immediately run over by a car.
This incident is enough to get Wednesday’s town villages revoked. Though this seems like an empty punishment since the whole school is on lockdown. Someone burned Fire Will Rain on their front lawn.
Wednesday isn’t one for believing the rules apply to her. She has it in her head that she’s meant to save Nevermore Academy, probably from whatever descendent of Crackstone who’s still around. So she has no problem lying to Enid and Tyler and convincing them to help her sneak off campus and explore the Gates house further.
This, of course, is an incredibly informative trip. The kids find a hidden altar to Crackstone, as well as the missing body parts from the monster’s victims. They also find evidence that someone’s been staying in the house. Someone who’s staying in what looks like a little girl’s room.
Before they can find anything more, the monster finds them. They barely escape, and go to the sheriff with what they find.
Of course, the house has been cleared out by the time Sheriff Galpin arrives. Furious that his son was almost killed, he tells Wednesday to stay away from him.
Because that always works, right?
Galpin isn’t the only one angry. Enid is fed up with the way Wednesday has been treating her. And so she leaves their room to bunk with someone else, leaving Wednesday alone.
This episode was well done. The discoveries at the house were exciting, and I’m almost sure I know who’s behind the murders at this point. Overall, this was a good ramp-up to the season finale.
Finally, this episode did something I was worried just wasn’t going to happen. And for that alone, it deserves praise.
Wednesday has been incredibly selfish and inconsiderate since the first episode. She’s been rude and demanding towards Thing. She’s ignored her friends’ needs and emotions while insisting they put themselves in danger for her investigation. She has respected no one’s boundaries, even while other people have at least tried to respect hers.
And now, it’s finally come back to bite her. All of the people who have been doing their best to show her kindness and support are finally done with her bullshit.
Yes, this is a good thing! Characters are best when they’re allowed to learn and grow. When they don’t come to us flawless. When they mess up and learn from it. Especially for a show aimed at kids, this is essential.
If you’d asked me at the beginning of the season if this character was going to experience honest character growth, I’d have assured you it would never happen. Much to my surprise, it’s happening. I hope that Wednesday is going to come out of this a better person. With two episodes left in the season, there’s plenty of time for that. (4 / 5)