Home > Reviews > MEN – Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow

MEN – Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Folk horror is a sub-genre within the larger horror pantheon which uses folklore, coupled with a rural setting and themes of isolation, religion, and the power of nature, to terrify audiences. It is often found in British films, with efforts like Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man standing out as defining works, while more recent films like The Witch, Midsommar, and Lamb, have broadened the horizons internationally. Writer-director Alex Garland’s film Men returns to the genre’s roots, being set in an idyllic village in the English countryside, but from this starting point he takes viewers on a brutal, hallucinogenic journey through themes of misogyny, toxic masculinity, and post-traumatic stress. Jessie Buckley stars as Harper, a widow who decides to take a holiday in the English countryside following the apparent suicide of her husband. Once she is settled into the pretty house she is renting, Jessie meets several men in the village – the owner of the house, a vicar, a teenage boy, a policeman, a pub landlord – all of whom are played by Rory Kinnear. Most disturbingly, she frequently encounters a naked man (also Kinnear), who appears to be stalking her.

To say more about where the plot thereafter goes would rob the film of a great deal of its impact, suffice to say that before the end the film has gone from gently unsettling depictions of wild nature to full-on David Cronenberg body horror. It’s also a tour-de-force acting showcase from Buckley and Kinnear, the latter of whom is especially impressive. He plays six or seven different roles that range from the upper-class buffoon Geoffrey, who rents the holiday property to Harper, to the casually dismissive local copper, to the creepy vicar whose outwardly caring demeanor masks a much darker and sexually grotesque core. Each of these men is an archetype/stereotype of the different types of casual misogyny many women face on a daily basis, and the fact that Kinnear plays all of them as meta-variations of each other is a clever conceit that becomes especially pronounced in the film’s sickening finale. Most interestingly, Kinnear’s performance as the silent but unnerving ‘naked man’ taps into the folklore legend of the Green Man, an ancient pagan symbol of nature and rebirth, carvings of whom are found in churches all over Europe, despite the legend pre-dating the arrival of Christianity in the region. There’s an enormous amount of symbolism and metaphor throughout the film, which makes it a fascinating simultaneous exploration of numerous themes.

Music also plays a major part in Men. The score is by British composer Geoff Barrow, one of the co-founders of the groundbreaking electronic band Portishead, along with his regular collaborator and co-composer Ben Salisbury. Salisbury and Barrow scored both of Alex Garland’s previous films, Ex-Machina and Annihilation, as well as the TV series Devs, which Garland created. Salisbury and Barrow are at the forefront of contemporary experimental electronic scoring but, I have to admit, I have often found their work difficult to connect with on an emotional level. A great deal of their music tends to be based around subtle sound manipulation, textures and ambiences which create a simple pervasive mood, and very rarely engage in dramatic linear storytelling. Having said that, I found parts of Annihilation to be really quite impressive, especially in the finale, and I very much appreciated how they blurred the lines between diegetic and non-diegetic music in their score for the TV series Archive 81 earlier this year. Men is a score that is like that too; parts of it rarely rise above the sound of an ambient hum, but other parts of it are impressively powerful, with especially fascinating use of voices, layered against each other in ways that create an overwhelming cacophony of sound.

The concept of echoes plays a significant part in the score too, just as it does in the film. In one key scene Harper is out walking in the woods near her holiday rental when she happens upon a disused railway line; she follows the line to an abandoned tunnel, and amuses herself by calling into it and listening to the echoes. Eventually, Harper realizes that she can create the sound of a one-woman choir by singing different notes and rhythmic patterns, one after the other, into the tunnel, and have them bounce off the tunnel walls so that the echoes harmonize, resulting in a recognizable melody. Immediately after this Harper has her first encounter with the ‘naked man,’ and thereafter this Tunnel Echo melody becomes an integral part of the score – it symbolizes not only her link to the ‘naked man,’ but becomes a sort of leitmotif for the Green Man concept, while also illustrating the ‘echoes’ prevalent in the story, where the misogynistic behaviors of different men overlap and combine, eventually coalescing into the symbolism of the film’s monstrous finale.

Other voices play an important role in the rest of the score too. The opening cue, “Pastorale,” has a haunting liturgical tone that blends church music and plainsong with something altogether more ancient and earthy, resulting in a sound that is deeply unnerving. These voices continue to play an anxiety-inducing role in cues like “Impaled” and “The Church,” where they often combine with shrill, ambient, disturbingly ambiguous electronic tonalities, creating a dream-like mood that is very compelling in context, but makes for difficult listening.

Different voices play a major part in “The Green Man,” a sort of guttural, rasping sound that blends the electronic tones with throat singing and overtone drones in a wash of sound that seems to emanate from the bowels of the earth. Later, the religioso voices return in the more lyrical “Brute Blood,” which has poetic English lyrics and comes across like a modern arrangement of an ancient hymn.

“A Country Walk” uses soothing, watery electronic textures that seem to mimic the sound of a church organ, as part of the extended sequence where Harper explores the woods around her holiday cottage, immediately prior to her tunnel encounter. Garland intersperses shots of Harper’s pleasant amble with footage of woodland nature – moss-covered trees, sun-dappled glades full of bluebells, shadowy copses where the light barely penetrates the canopy of leaves – but when this combines with Salisbury and Barrow’s music the woods take on a moody, slightly ominous feeling that is very effective at setting up a sense of dark anticipation.

The subsequent “Tunnel Escape” – Harper’s helter-skelter dash away from the naked man’s frightening visage – is eerie and dissonant, distorted echoing voices and electronic whines that are as alarming as they are peculiar, while later cues like “Fuck This,” “The Tip of a Blade,” and “Hide and Seek,” feature an array of ephemeral electronic textures, groaning voices, and grating sound effects. These creations certainly add a level of hallucinatory chaos to the scenes, but also push the boundaries of unlistenable noise when separated from the visuals.

The Tunnel Echo melody gets its only real major performance on the album at the beginning of “Runaway/Crash,” where it is joined by folksy strummed guitars, before being abruptly interrupted by more harsh synth textures and growling voices that swirl and buzz and surround the listener like a plague of angry insects. Everything comes to a head in the conclusive “Birth,” where all the score’s main recurring elements – the various vocal styles, the eerie electronic tones, the throat singing and the drones and the wailing liturgical chorus – collide and overlap in a symphony of increasingly more alarming aural experiments, before eventually returning to one final performance of the Tunnel Echo melody as the score ends. The visual horror that this music accompanies is nightmarish and shocking, but also clearly has parallels in the natural world that people don’t want to address or think about, while the layered echoes of sound, as I mentioned before, are auditory metaphors, symbolic of the film’s deeper meanings. It’s clever stuff, clearly designed with an intellectual element, but it’s very, very challenging.

Parts of the score for Men reminded me a great deal of Daniel Hart’s music for The Green Knight, in the way it combines elements of the supernatural and the horrific with earthy, grounded voices intended to represent the paganistic history of England and its legends, and so in that respect may appeal to anyone who admired that score. But, ultimately, I feel the same way about Men: The Soundtrack Album as I do about Men: The Film. I deeply respect what Alex Garland, Ben Salisbury, and Geoff Barrow are doing, and I understand the way that both film and music have layers of allegory and symbolism addressing bigger, more complex issues. But – as an actual experience – parts of the film are so visceral and so visually unnerving, and the music is equally uncomfortable and unsettling, that I don’t think I ever want to sit through either of them again.

Buy the Men soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Pastorale (2:17)
  • Impaled (2:33)
  • A Country Walk (1:24)
  • Tunnel Escape (2:21)
  • The Green Man (4:36)
  • Fuck This (4:12)
  • The Church (4:25)
  • Runaway/Crash (3:49)
  • The Tip of a Blade (3:56)
  • Brute Blood (2:28)
  • Hide and Seek (3:20)
  • Birth (8:48)

Running Time: 44 minutes 02 seconds

Lakeshore Records/Invada LSINV-286D (2022)

Music composed by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. Special vocal performances by Jessie Buckley. Recorded and mixed by Rupert Coulson. Edited by Rachel Park. Album produced by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow.

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