The Ex Machina auteur dips into A24 horror in his confounding but beautifully crafted mood piece.

There is nothing quite like the clammy abstract terror of a nightmare. And nothing deadlier than trying to turn that into a topic of conversation, or (Freud forbid) art: It is a truth universally acknowledged that nobody wants to hear about your dreams unless they're in them — even when they manifest in a movie as gorgeously, meticulously made as Men (in theaters May 20), the latest enigma-wrapped riddle from the fertile mind of director Alex Garland.

Men is the third film the former novelist turned screenwriter has full command over, after Ex Machina and Annihilation, and it's tempting at first to think of them together as some sort of trilogy; no one else does modern dread with such an aesthete's sense of natural beauty, and an almost otherworldly attunement to strange currencies. Here, Garland also has the gifts of Jessie Buckley, the Irish actress whose indelible turns in lacerating indies like Beast and I'm Thinking of Ending Things — along with her Oscar-nominated breakout in last year's The Lost Daughter — feel like the surreal opposite of most starlets' safe, dainty career arcs.

Jessie Buckley in 'Men'
| Credit: A24

She appears in almost every scene as Harper, a woman devastated by the recent loss of her semi-estranged husband (I May Destroy You's Paapa Essiedu). James's death was likely not an accident, we learn in fraught early flashbacks; he had already promised to end his life many times if she followed through on her plans to leave him. Upended by guilt and grief, she's booked two weeks at a house in the English countryside that turns out to exceed all Airbnb fantasies: a grand old manor owned by a jolly, horse-y type called Geoffrey (veteran British character actor Rory Kinnear).

The grounds around it, too, are lovely, a sweep of Brontë-worthy woods and moors that Harper happily explores on her own, tromping down abandoned railroad tracks and wending her way toward a friendly pint in the picturesque village nearby. Except she's not alone on her stroll; there's a nude, disheveled man (also Kinnear) staring wordlessly across a field and, later, through her living-room window. In fact, his face is everywhere: In the eerily CG'ed figure of a tetchy schoolboy, the laconic local barkeep, a policeman, a vicar — she sees all and only Kinnears. And none of them, it's increasingly clear, come in peace.

Garland torques the film's feverish atmosphere for maximum impact, the low hum of panic building to a hornet's-nest swarm. And his longtime cinematographer Rob Hardy frames every shot with an almost painterly reverence, from a field of shivering bluebells to the maggots writhing in a dead deer's eye. But without a cohesive plot to point to, it's hard to parse what exactly the larger message is meant to be beyond a broad treatise on toxic masculinity, or some extended metaphor for all the ways a brain can skitter and schism in the wake of bereavement. More disappointing, maybe, is how much the story takes Buckley's agency away as it goes on, her defiant, sharply defined presence in the first hour giving way to the bog-standard helplessness of every woman trapped in a horror movie. Men's eerie, encompassing mood lingers; the rest is a mystery. Grade: B–

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