In England, no one can hear you scream.
That seems to be the premise of Alex Garland's Men, whose grief-stricken protagonist (Jessie Buckley) lets out feral, earth-quaking bellows in all manner of places: the bathtub, a church, the claustrophobic hallways of a country manor. Each time, her roars go unheard by those around her, even as they risk shattering an errant wine glass in the cinema.
Buckley is Harper Marlowe, a recent widow whose husband James (Paapa Essiedu), in a fit of rage, tripped – or jumped – off a high-rise balcony, a tragedy rendered in syrupy slow motion in Men's opening shot. Harper can only gaze on in abject horror as James falls past her, limned in an impressionistic sunset glow – a sight that returns to haunt us again and again.
In the aftermath, Harper retreats to an off-grid estate for the weekend, ostensibly hoping to shed her grief with a salve as old as time: crisp country air and nature, hours away from any signs of life – or so she thinks.
No sooner has she arrived than unsettling sights start sprouting from the walls of the manor, which are painted blood-red (a too-obvious sign, perhaps, of what's to come). It begins with the appearance of Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), her mealy-mouthed landlord, whose bumbling mannerisms and slightly off-colour jokes might conceal menacing intentions.
Then, on a video call with her friend Riley (Glow's Gayle Rankin, who is under-utilised here), Harper's phone screen glitches in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it jump scare, distorting into a Lovecraftian morass of flesh and blood – a grisly, misshapen pair of lips locked in an eternal screech.
That glitch teases a connection to Garland's earlier films – thinky sci-fi parables that deal with the dystopian implications of technological advancement. In the British director's Oscar-nominated Ex Machina (2014), a moneyed, macho Silicon Valley type develops the perfect fembot prototype.
His follow-up, an atmospheric adaptation of acclaimed sci-fi saga Annihilation (2018), stars Natalie Portman as a biologist leading an all-women troupe of commandos into a mysterious zone called 'the Shimmer', where their military weapons are defenceless against an inexplicable force that invades their bodies.
Garland's latest, though, is somewhat a left turn. Like Ex Machina and Annihilation, it is a chamber piece – isolating its characters in a bucolic sanctuary that turns nightmarish, and leaving them to unravel the knotty despairs plaguing them. But Men dials down the sci-fi tropes in favour of something more sinister.
It slots neatly into the recent wave of so-called elevated horror movies, which use the slice-and-dice gore of their predecessors as metaphors for some greater existential anxiety.
Ari Aster's Hereditary and Midsommar are linchpins of this genre, offering grand ruminations on family dysfunction and relationship woes. Closer to home, Australian films Relic and cult favourite The Babadook have also told twisty tales of intergenerational trauma and motherhood in spooky, skin-crawling fashion.
And with a title like that, Men could only be a horror film.
Unfortunately, its title is also where it seems to reside.
Compared to its peers, Men's attempt at elevated horror feels paper-thin. Film need not possess a political manifesto – it can, of course, remain purely sensory – but Garland clubs us over the head with a bleedingly obvious one: all men are the same, and all men are bad.
Like an intoxicated heart-to-heart in a nightclub bathroom, you can almost hear Garland raving "men are trash!" while smirking to himself. As if this is a new idea to anyone born in the last century.
He sledgehammers his point home by enlisting Kinnear to play – alongside Geoffrey – an assortment of male tormentors.
There is a naked man who stalks Harper in the background of shots like a satanic Where's Wally. There is an inept policeman who arrests, then releases said stalker. There is a young boy – a digitally de-aged Kinnear, equal parts creepy and cherubic – who spars with Harper outside a local church, calling her, out of the blue, a "stupid bitch".
To his credit, Kinnear's performance approaches the virtuosic, as he shapeshifts with little more than a tweak in costume or accent into a cornucopia of villains.
Buckley, too, is in typically good form, fresh off a rabidly acclaimed turn in last year's thorny drama The Lost Daughter. As Harper, she is indignant and undaunted, though her eyes often betray a quiet desperation as the horrors around her close in.
And she is, of course, great at screaming.
But Garland misuses both his leads to grasp at #MeToo relevance while providing merely a surface-level screed against misogyny.
It is a shame, because Men contains the kernels of many intriguing ideas.
In an early scene, familiar to anyone who has watched the trailer, Harper calls into an endless tunnel, her voice reverberating off its mossy edges to form a strangely symphonic melody. When she returns to the tunnel minutes later, she finds it boarded up, in a state of disrepair.
Has there been a wrinkle in time? Are we witnessing the breakdown of Harper's grip on reality? Garland opts to ignore these narrative threads entirely.
There is also a plethora of visually stunning images: James' death, replaying like an intrusive memory; a stone engraving of the Green Man, a leafy folk figure and mythical symbol of rebirth who Garland recasts as a malicious presence. Each time it appears, it is accompanied by a ghostly trick of the light and a wailing, discordant score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow.
Without sufficient grounding, however, these images feel too abstracted, resembling a gimmicky showreel more than a film.
Indeed, Men teeters precariously on the edge of self-parody.
As it crescendos to a sanguinary finale complete with mutilated limbs and a murderous game of hide-and-seek, the only appropriate response is a bout of stifled laughter at the sheer, meaningless absurdity of it all.
We might view it as a satire of elevated horror, a genre that has permeated the market to such an extent that its latest imitators, by virtue of their ubiquity, blend into one bloody mass. But that would probably be too generous.
Men is in cinemas now.