An impaled husband. A naked stalker. A hand sliced up to look like a lobster claw. And a birth scene that will shock you to the core. “I imagine it’ll probably be the creepiest film we ever do,” says Rory Kinnear.
The British actor is talking about Men, the new movie from Alex Garland, the singular talent who wrote zombie classic 28 Days Later and more recently AI drama Ex Machina, which he also directed.
The “we” is Kinnear and his co-star Jessie Buckley, who just won an Olivier for her jaw-dropping turn as Sally Bowles in the West End revival of Cabaret.
Now she’s the lead in Garland’s deeply unnerving folk horror, a film that turns its eye on England’s green-and-not-so-pleasant land. She plays Harper, a woman fresh out of a traumatic relationship with an abusive, obsessive husband (Paapa Essiedu) who, in the very first scene, is glimpsed falling to his death past the window of her high-rise apartment. Then she arrives at an Airbnb in the picturesque village of Cotson, in desperate need of this divine-looking rural retreat.
“I think she’s probably still dealing with grief,” says Buckley, who was also recently nominated for an Oscar for The Lost Daughter, “and has chosen to do this thing to find some sort of peace.”
Peace is exactly what she doesn’t get after renting the house from the avuncular posho Geoffrey, the first of eight roles played by Kinnear. Famed for playing MI6 operative Bill Tanner in the Daniel Craig-era James Bond films, as well as winning an Olivier himself in 2014 for his Iago in a National Theatre production of Othello, Kinnear has never done anything this strange.
As he inhabits all the men (and one boy) that Harper meets, it’s extraordinarily unnerving to see him switch between vicar, publican, policeman and, most disconcertingly, a naked weirdo who follows Harper back to her house.
There are times when watching Kinnear in Men feels like that restaurant scene in Being John Malkovich, the Charlie Kaufman-scripted head-teaser from 1999, which is filled with multiple Malkovichs (male, female, young and old). Garland’s references were a mite older, though.
“I kept thinking about Alec Guinness,” he says. The British Oscar-winner played nine different characters in the Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets. “He could be gentle or he could be funny or he could be scary, and he could really move between them very effectively.”
Kinnear, whom Garland dubs “a first-rate actor”, does much the same. He wrote out biographies for every character, to distinguish each one, but without too much “look-at-me” fanfare.
“I wanted to make sure the fact that I was playing all the male characters did seem weird,” he says, “but it wasn’t announcing itself, so all these characters [feel] credible enough.” No doubt it could’ve ended up as a series of Little Britain-style caricatures in the hands of an actor less skilled than Kinnear. “It felt like a weird risk,” says Garland, “but exactly the sort of risk worth taking.”
But what does it all mean? Clearly, the men Harper meets are manifestations of the trauma that she’s been through with her husband. “It’s about the break-up of a relationship and the pain that ensues from that break-up, and the grief and trauma that comes with that,” acknowledges Buckley. Is it about male toxicity?
“Yeah, I think there’s aspects of that in there,” she continues. “I don’t think it’s saying ‘This is all men’ or ‘This is all that men have within them.’ I think it’s more asking the question: where does toxic masculinity come from and how can we look at it?” Or as Kinnear notes, “It’s less that all men are like this than all women have these experiences.”
Fleshed out with pre-Christian Pagan symbols – the mythological Green Man and Sheela na gig feature prominently – this feels like folk-horror for a post-MeToo world. Garland, who has been tinkering with this script since 2008, is noncommittal when it comes to offering up exact interpretations.
“I was trying to find extremes of various sorts that would just be challenging in one way or another,” he says. “I can understand people feeling it’s ambiguous. But it’s also quite aggressive. I was looking for things that didn’t give people anywhere to hide.”
Garland isn’t the first director to tackle folk-horror recently. Ben Wheatley’s 2021 movie In the Earth explored the genre in a post-pandemic landscape. Meanwhile, Bait director Mark Jenkin has just premiered his equally unsettling Cornish-based Enys Men at the Cannes Film Festival, where Men also received a special screening in Director’s Fortnight.
“Britain has a very easy connection to folk horror,” adds Garland. “As a country – or bunch of countries – we’re surrounded by certain kinds of imagery, like stone circles or mysterious carvings or buildings with strange scratch marks around the doorways that date back 600 years and people say are there to ward off witches.”
The Irish-born Buckley was the outsider, able to look at a film that plays with what she calls “the strangeness of England and the rituals within the English countryside”. It was shot in Gloucestershire’s verdant rural environs, and “that English countryside hypnotises you into the horror without you even knowing”, she adds. “It’s very seductive and luscious. But I think there’s a universality to it as well. It’s kind of like a fable in some way. The landscape lends itself to be a fable, which can be universally related to wherever you are.”
Curiously, it’s Buckley’s second off-kilter relationship drama, following Charlie Kaufman’s 2020 movie I’m Thinking of Ending Things. “There’s a disquieting feel about them – an unnerving provocativeness,” she says. “You feel like it’s not just something that’s palatable or vanilla.”
Horror movies are not her thing, though. “I think the last horror film I saw was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre when I was about eight.”
With her family living at the foot of a mountain in Killarney, County Kerry, her father screened this bloodthirsty classic one Halloween. “We’d stop the film halfway, get into the car, he’d drive us up [the mountain] and then we’d run through the woods! So I’ve been traumatised from that!”
Men will undoubtedly do the same to the squeamish among you (particularly with an unforgettably divisive ending that rivals the baby-feast in Darren Aronofsky’s 2017 biblical-tinged horror Mother!).
In reality, it wasn’t so traumatic, says Kinnear. “Spirits were pretty high. It was a jolly shoot.” The house where they shot contained a piano. “So there was a bit of duetting,” he adds. “I’d say you were doing more of the singing,” adds Buckley, who just happens to be about to release an album, For All Our Days That Tear The Heart, filled with songs she co-wrote with ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler.
So what did they sing on the set of Men to keep the demons at bay? “There was a bit of Elton John,” laughs Buckley. Kinnear in glittery platforms hammering the keys to “Crocodile Rock”? The mind boggles. “Whenever it was lunchtime we’d just go ‘Ooh’ to each other,” Buckley jokes, referring to the ominous echo-note on the soundtrack composed by Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow. Still, Garland can’t quite bring himself to assess whether this is the freakiest film he’s ever made. “I don’t really know,” he sighs. “What I do think is there are areas where it doesn’t restrain itself at all.” Now are you tempted?