“Men” is the writer-director Alex Garland’s third film. What it has in common with his first two — “Ex Machina” (2014) and “Annihilation” (2018) — are intelligence, chilliness, unreality, and disquiet. Those films are versions of science fiction. “Men” is horror, with a touch of fantasy, so the disquiet quotient is a lot higher. There’s one other thing the films share: having a strong, resourceful woman at their center, played by Alicia Vikander, in “Ex Machina,” Natalie Portman, in “Annihilation,” and Jessie Buckley, in “Men.”
Buckley’s character, Harper, is a grieving widow who lives in London. The nature of her grief is particularly tangled, as will emerge over the course of the movie. A solitary two-week rental in the English countryside promises to be a welcome change of emotional scenery. That’s the idea, anyway.
The rental is straight out of real estate central casting. Centuries old, it’s a manor house with oak-beamed ceilings, flagstone floors, casement windows. Fabric covers the walls. The fabric is red. (Hmm.) The fireplace has an ax next to it, for, you know, firewood; and three carving knives are highly visible in the kitchen, for, you know, carving. (Hmm again.) There are apple trees in the yard, and when Harper arrives she plucks a piece of fruit and takes a bite. (Hmm? Oh, yes, definitely hmm.)
Munching her apple, Harper meets Geoffrey, the owner (Rory Kinnear). He’s a bit off-putting in his general oddity but seems harmless enough. Eccentrics are part of the rural-England ambience, after all. And he’s not necessarily any odder than the vicar — you knew there’d be a vicar, right? — who presides over the medieval church in the quaint village. “To be honest, you don’t need to lock your doors around here,” Geoffrey says.
With such elements in place, the arc of what follows is easy enough to imagine, though many of the specifics aren’t. The mechanics of horror — lights going out at inopportune moments, ominous music on the soundtrack, the ubiquity of a ketchup-like bodily fluid — are means to an end for Garland rather than any end unto itself. The entertainment value of shock and gore doesn’t interest him. The symbolic and metaphorical value does.
The title announces Garland’s concerns. Like the movie, that title is both direct and opaque. “Men” is a meditation on masculinity, misogyny, menace. What a lot of “m” words, and they all do combine in the director’s mind (another “m” word), and don’t forget mythology. In execution, “Men” is a chamber drama — small cast, limited locations. In conception, it’s practically symphonic. The vicar cites Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan,” inspired by a Greek myth. The church has some reliefs of the mythological figure the Green Man. Garland shows them in lingering closeup. Later, the Green Man takes on human form, and “Men” becomes a bit of a monster movie as well as a horror movie.
All this business is very serious and aspirationally profound. It’s also inscrutable enough that a sympathetic viewer might not notice how ludicrous the movie has become. Ludicrous and pretentious may not be friends, but they’re certainly neighbors.
“Men” belongs to a specific horror subgenre: the strong-woman-in-peril movie. As subgenres go, that one’s pretty repellent. (You will recall that “Leda and the Swan” is about a rape.) Sisterhood is powerful, and so’s victimhood? What makes this worse is that Garland wants to have it both ways. The men in this movie don’t just behave horrifically. Their behavior is clearly meant to be seen as representative. So the cruelty and violence we’re shown get a moral pass because they’re being presented in condemnation. Uh-huh. At some point, rendering the hatred of women itself becomes the hatred of women.
Buckley spends most of the movie having to react to what’s going on around her. She’s the still point in a world that’s turning faster and faster. Harper enables the story — you can’t portray misogyny without an object of it — but a further message the title sends is that she’s fundamentally incidental. What a waste of a superb actress. Buckley almost makes “Men” worth sitting through. Almost.
Written and directed by Alex Garland. Starring Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu. At Boston theaters, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, suburbs. 100 minutes. R (disturbing and violent content, graphic nudity, images, language)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.