The sinister side of that British passion to “Escape to the Country” is the font of horror in “Men,” a genuinely hair-raising thriller from the director of “Ex Machina.”
Alex Garland puts Jessie Buckley in jeopardy in a quiet country village, and makes her plight a universal statement on men’s mania for controlling women as she is judged, menaced and imperiled by every bloke she meets in tiny Cotson, where she’s rented a house to be alone with her thoughts and recover from trauma and tragedy.
Buckley, of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” and “The Lost Daughter,” gives a tense, troubled performance that leans into one of her great acting gifts — her ability to look stricken without saying a word.
Harper may put on a brave face on the phone with her best friend (Gayle Rankin) and give the chatty, “very specific ‘type'” Wellington’d landlord (Rory Kinnear of “Penny Dreadful” and the James Bond franchise) of Cotson Manor a smile. But she’s come here to escape something awful that haunts her. Her husband (Paapa Essiedu) killed himself, jumping off their apartment building, leaving her with the image of James staring her in the eye as he plummeted past her window to his death.
The toothy, jocular country squire Geoffrey might ask, “Where’s hubby?” of his renter “Mrs. Marlowe” in all innocence. That doesn’t mean she has to answer, or tell him the truth about anything — whether or not she plays the piano, for instance, as this 500 year old house with the bright red walls is equipped with one.
“I’m just going to have to learn to deal with it,” she tells her chum Riley.
But the moment she takes a bite out of the apple from the tree in the front yard, we don’t have to be reminded of “forbidden fruit” by Geoffrey to sense her unease or what this is about. That first long walk in the lush, dense woods cast in overcast English gloom hits us with other creepy metaphors. That long, echoey old train tunnel might make Harper giddy at its magical, musical properties. We see the danger before the silhouette of a strange man appears on the other end.
And there’s nothing like ending your near-panicked run back home like glancing back and seeing a naked, nicked-up and muddy man staring out of the gloom at you.
This “Escape” and recover idyll is going to be nothing of the sort.
Garland hurls assorted creepy local oddballs at Harper — an unfiltered, on-the-spectrum mean boy, a male cop given to shrugging off her concerns when his female partner takes her seriously, the comforting-and-helpful-until-he-judges-her priest.
“You must wonder how you drove him to it.“
And all the while, our heroine is remembering the grisly details of her last day with her husband, the horrific nature of his injuries, the reason she’s “haunted” by what happened to him, and to her.
Garland uses simple casting and makeup tricks and elaborate and gory childbirth effects to raise Harper’s threat level from troubled to alarmed about this conspiracy of “Men” — starting with her husband — who seek control over her, physically, psychologically and socially.
And Buckley gives us a stoic woman whose strong self-assurance is attacked and eroded by man after man in assaults that range from mental to physical, with a heady dose of the supernatural compounding her terror.
The writer-director and his star manage several chills, a bit of breathless suspense and some eyes-averting gore as they challenge us to stare down the threat of “Men” their EveryWoman faces and confronts. And they put us in her shoes, shaken by their violence, handicapped by her own empathy and guilt until she sees the Big Societal Picture — the cruel manipulation of a system engineered to keep her from “the forbidden fruit” and under control.
Rating: R for disturbing and violent content, graphic nudity, grisly images and language.
Cast: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu and Gayle Rankin
Credits: Scripted and directed by Alex Garland. An A24 release.
Running time: 1:40