The psychology guys say that while staring at the color green tends to soothe people, staring at the color red tends to have the opposite effect and make them tense. Ingmar Bergman used this to good effect in Cries and Whispers, where the all-red interiors contributed to the claustrophobic feeling of a dysfunctional family coming together for a sister’s last days.
Alex Garland takes a page out of Bergman’s book in his horror film Men, where the heroine rents a country house with more than a few walls painted fire-engine red. This contrasts nicely with the verdant forest outside the manor, which there always seems to be in Garland’s films and TV shows. Neither place, it turns out, offers much refuge to the tormented protagonist.
The story begins with Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) in her London flat witnessing her husband James (Paapa Essiedu) make good on his threat to kill himself if she leaves him. She leases a large, thoroughly modernized manor in rural Gloucestershire to get away from everything, but her dreams of a peaceful country getaway are shattered by the appearance of a homeless naked man (Rory Kinnear) in the front yard, peering through the window. Soon Harper starts seeing him everywhere.
That’s likely because Kinnear plays all the male characters in this film except for James. Each of them is creepier than the last: the hayseed landlord, the cop with a lackadaisical attitude toward arresting the homeless man, the little boy who calls Harper a stupid bitch, the thugs hanging out at the village pub, and the soft-spoken vicar who hears about James’ suicide and tells Harper, “You must wonder why you drove him to it.” Casting the same actor in all these roles is more than a stunt, it reflects Harper’s mindset. She sees predators everywhere, and so all the men seem equally shady. Like her, we’re not sure which Kinnear can be trusted and which one can’t, and they all seem to have some form of terrible teeth, hair, or both.
This movie is your best chance to date to see one of the world’s most dynamic young actresses. Buckley now has an Oscar nomination from The Lost Daughter, and she has been brilliant in movies as different as Beast, Wild Rose, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Here, she uses her native Irish accent for once, and her fraying psyche is easily the best part of this horror movie as Harper experiences scarring visions of James’ mangled body impaled on the fence outside their building.
Still, it doesn’t track that someone with her brand of trauma would start seeing male predators everywhere who bear no resemblance to James. (It Follows is a better film in that vein anyway.) Movies are under no obligation to follow real-world logic, and horror films are under the least obligation of all, but the logic of nightmares applies here, and Men only fitfully achieves the paranoid vision that it’s going for. Garland can still conjure up a visual of convulsive power, like the climactic sequence when the man chasing Harper gives birth to something, which gives birth to something, which gives birth to something, through two more generations. The director can also orchestrate a set piece that’s unsettling in a subtler way, like the scene in which Harper discovers a tunnel that echoes her voice and then finds herself not alone in there. These touches keep Men watchable. If Garland ever puts everything together, he’s going to sweep everything before him.