Rated R. At Landmark Kendall Square.
You are unlikely to find a ghastly Gothic freak-show more out there than Alex Garland’s “Men,” a woman-on-her-own thriller, featuring Jessie Buckley as Harper, a young person whose arguably mentally ill and definitely abusive ex (Paapa Essiedu) throws himself out of a window, making good on his threat of suicide in fraught opening scenes. Writer-director Garland (“Annihilation”) lingers on the gruesome image of Harper finding her ex-husband’s mutilated body torn on the spikes of an iron fence.
Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley, right) chats with a local (Rory Kinnear) in a pub in ‘Men.’ (Kevin Baker — A24 Films)
As part of her recovery, Harper rents a manor house where she plans to stay alone in a small village, where she meets Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), the local agent. Does this strike anyone else as unlikely? Arriving at the house, Harper picks an apple from a tree and takes a bite out of it. Is she another Eve?
Geoffrey reminds Harper that the house is in some parts 500 years old, older even. Harper feels guilty for her ex’s death and sees it repeated frequently in her mind’s eye. Harper takes a long walk in the woods. She encounters a long tunnel and pauses to sing out notes to hear the echos. Irish actress and singer Buckley made her breakthrough on the BBC show “I’d Do Anything.” She has a lovely voice.
Suddenly, Harper sees a figure at the other end of the tunnel. The silhouetted figure begins running toward her. She turns and runs away, retracing her steps. Eventually, she reaches what she believes is a safe space only to come across a nude male, who also follows her. This nude man will later reappear in Harper’s garden. These scenes are genuinely unsettling. The male characters in the film all have something in common. I will not say what it is. But it is at times unintentionally funny.
“Men” is a film about how guilt undermines mental health. In spite of the fact that her former partner was clearly unstable and dangerous, Harper feels somewhat responsible for his death. That guilt manifests itself as a freaky haunting by strange men, complete with an injury similar to one sustained by Harper’s ex. Things get out of control conceptually when Harper visits the town pub, where several men are gathered and you think you might be watching a bad “SNL” skit.
The plot will also involve a boy who wears a mask of a blond woman and a long, gray-haired vicar Harper encounters in the local church, who puts his hand on her knee with no reaction from her; and a decomposing, dead deer recalling the work of Peter Greenaway (“Prospero’s Books”). At other times, “Men” evokes the work of Ari Aster (“Midsommar”).
I was confused about why Harper hadn’t noticed the most obvious thing about the men in “Men.” When she also doesn’t acknowledge the hand on her knee, I started to lose interest. By the way, the church boasts a baptismal font with what looks like pagan elements carved on it, including a depiction of the Green Man of English fable.
The lights in the house keep flashing. “Men” is a kind of flawed “Repulsion” for our times. Harper’s only lifeline is a friend named Riley (Gayle Rankin, “The Greatest Showman”) she calls on her cellphone and whose face we see on its screen. Cinematography by Rob Hardy (“Mission Impossible – Fallout”) frequently recalls Claude Monet when it isn’t looking extremely nightmarish.
One long, creepy sequence near the end of “Men” will give you a serious case of the willies. But “Men” is conceptually squishy.
(“Men” contains violence, graphic nudity, profanity and gruesome images.)