There’s a deliciously disturbing moment in “Men” that made filmmaker Alex Garland question his own sanity.
Minutes before the brain-breaking conclusion of the new horror drama (in theaters Friday), an uncanny young boy with his arm split open from the elbow puts a dead crow on a kitchen counter. He places a 1950s Marilyn Monroe mask on the bird’s head and proceeds to make its wings flap by tugging at its feet.
Sometimes, “I find myself working on a scene and I think, ‘What on Earth are we doing? How did we get here?’ ” Garland says. “As a set of things stacked up on each other of just pure weirdness, that felt pretty weird. I’m a very unremarkable person: a dad of two kids who does his job. But then the job turns out to be a kid with a Marilyn Monroe mask and a dead crow.”
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A reanimated raven is hardly the most unnerving thing about “Men,” Garland’s third feature as writer-director after 2015’s sleekly futuristic “Ex Machina” and 2018’s densely layered “Annihilation” with Natalie Portman.
The film opens with a newly widowed woman named Harper (Jessie Buckley) who rents a rural English manor for an extended getaway. But Harper’s hopes for healing and tranquility are quickly dashed, due in part to the estate’s patronizing landlord (Rory Kinnear) and other prying townsmen, all of whom bear an eerie resemblance.
Later, a pleasant walk in nature is alarmingly interrupted when Harper spots a shadowy figure of a naked man, who silently stares then chases her through a tunnel.
“A silhouette of a spooky person has something horrifying about it for sure, and films employ that all the time,” Garland says. But what makes this particular scene so upsetting is that “it’s an invasion of a lovely moment, of somebody who really needs the world to treat them kindly as they try to work through something difficult.”
Buckley, who earned a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for “The Lost Daughter” earlier this year, was drawn to Garland’s “brilliant” and “visceral” storytelling.
“Alex is a subversive punk who’s being provocative and asking questions,” Buckley says. “There is nothing ever answered (in the movie), so it was something we were constantly trying to excavate when we were making it.”
Through feverish flashbacks, viewers get a glimpse into Harper’s relationship with her troubled husband (Paapa Essiedu), and the film becomes as much about “the monsters within herself” as those around her, Buckley says. But the actress and her director are reluctant to elaborate on the project’s themes of toxic masculinity and visual parallels to Adam and Eve.
“I love the open way this story can get interpreted,” Garland says. “So many stories attempt to explain everything and that’s fine, but not all of them have to.”
Garland has yet to watch “Men” with an audience, although Buckley attended a preview screening in Brooklyn last month, where moviegoers shrieked and squirmed through the jaw-dropping third act.
“What’s fun about this film is that you can have genuine comedy live beside genuine terror,” Buckley says. “You’re lulled and laughing, and yet you feel there’s no footing underneath you. Everything is unknowable and shifting.”
The movie’s relentless dread even bled into real life for Buckley, who resides in the English countryside.
“When I was making this film, any time my partner came into the room, I screamed,” Buckley recalls with a laugh. “I was in a constant state of horror.”