Men. MA, 100 minutes. 4 stars
In the mid-1990s the British novelist Alex Garland had a real moment in the sun when his debut novel The Beach was "the" thing to read.
It was the Fifty Shades of Grey, the The Alchemist, the The Road of its day.
You couldn't swing a backpack down Patpong Road or a mochila on Cancun Beach without knocking a dozen copies out of peoples' hands, and when Leonardo DiCaprio starred in the film adaptation, the film industry's love affair with Garland began.
He wrote screenplays - the best of which were 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go - and in 2014 directed his first film, Ex Machina.
Men is his third feature film as writer and director.
It is the kind of confident and "out there" work that an innovative writer and filmmaker like Garland can get away with, where others wouldn't.
Harper (Jessie Buckley) has survived an abusive relationship and has escaped to an idyllic country village and a gorgeous rambling old home to try to recuperate and find herself again.
That's about as much of the plot from this metaphor-heavy work as I can describe without giving away a handful of reveals that a viewer might enjoy working out for themselves.
Read on at your own peril.
Her abusive husband James (Paapa Essiedu) was an expert gaslighter, that trait of denying others of their genuine experiences, and so the country home seems to be just the tonic she needs.
There's a baby grand piano in the study, wooden beam ceilings, a lovely open fire, and apple tree and a woodpile with an axe leaning against it.
The whole scene is like something from a fairy story.
Cue a strange, naked man (Rory Kinnear) in the woods who notices and starts following Harper, including back to the country house.
She has this man arrested by the local constable (also played by Kinnear).
Harper ducks into the local church where the vicar (Kinnear again) gives her a serving of unwanted raw observations about her own role in her personal dramas.
What Garland is getting at here is that men might come in different packages, but they're all really the same bag of lies and manipulations and viscera.
This is a horror film that delivers genuine scares.
I know I gasped out loud a handful of times and if I were watching it at home I probably would have walked around and turned every light in the place on.
This is thoughtful horror, like the 2019 film Midsommar, with mythology underlying the grotesqueries.
Are those apples falling from the tree implying Harper is Eve?
Is that axe by the fireplace waiting to cut down a Big Bad Wolf?
Garland explores ancient Celtic symbology in the figure of the Green Man.
The make-up department have a brilliant time reinventing this figure and Garland uses him in a long series of body-horror scenes.
Rob Hardy's cinematography adds, with vibrant colouring and warm lighting, to the fairytale feel.
Garland seems to be making a #metoo supporting statement here.
But he really comes close to moments of violent uncomfortability, like an old-school mid-'80s European arthouse feature, with misogyny that is apparently ironic.
At least you hope it is.
Buckley is an unlikely scream queen, and as repugnant as all of his characters are, Rory Kinnear is thoroughly brilliant.
It's hard to think this is the same sexy Tanner who was James Bond's pal from the 007 movies Spectre and No Time To Die.
His performances hark back to that surreal British horror sitcom The League of Gentlemen.
But the producers of that show could only dream of being given the license and the budget to be so gross-out-over-the-top.
Garland's film joins a handful of stories of modern rural horror like the recent TV adaptation of John Wyndham's novel The Midwich Cuckoos.
The latter is something I was inspired to explore afterwards (it's on Stan).
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