From Men, directed and written by Alex Garland.

Film Reviews: Soft Liquid Center and Men

Film Review Apr 14, 2024

by Grace Grocholski

Horror can be a particularly effective genre in depicting psychological trauma. When dealing with the strange or supernatural, conventions of horror allow the viewer to experience visceral emotions like fear and disgust, making the subjects of horror films immediate and knowable. Two films exploring female trauma and pain through the horror lens are Soft Liquid Center and Men.

Soft Liquid Center is an indie debut from collaborative team Perry Home Videos, composed of Steph Holmbo, Joseph Kolean, and Zachary Gutierrez. Steph Holmbo stars as the lead character, also named Steph, a young woman newly single after a break up with her boyfriend. We discover more about the toxic dynamics of the relationship as the film unfolds. The film plays out as though we are voyeurs into her life, always watching.

We watch as she settles into a new life in a “quirky” old home where the doors don’t fully latch. In an exchange with her friend, Alex, Steph says now that she lives alone it’s harder to explain away creaks in the night or branches knocking against the windows in the wind.

An unsettling moment in her new home comes when Steph returns after a day spent walking around the neighborhood to find the faucet inexplicably running. But it isn’t your typical haunted house: furniture moves, food rots in the fridge, and sounds emanate from a watermelon.

Water is also central to strange dreams or visions Steph has in which she is submerged in a stream. Even when she thinks she has escaped, Steph is in thrall to the spell cast by her ex-boyfriend. We don’t realize that we have been immersed in this water with Steph until it’s too late—the heat has slowly been turned up and we are now cooking in the boiling heat.

The film experiments with intense visuals and a compelling score, keeping the dialogue sparse. The droning of late summer cicadas creates an unexpected sonic backdrop. While it may polarize viewers, the film’s style of showing not telling is immersive and captivating to the closing shot.

Steph Holmbo in Soft Liquid Center.

Another film that may polarize viewers in its exploration of female trauma and survival is Alex Garland’s Men. Jessie Buckley plays the protagonist, Harper, who has rented a country home in the aftermath of her husband’s shocking death. The opening scene of the movie depicts this death in surreal slow motion. The couple’s history is woven into the present day as the film unfolds.

With biblical undertones, present day Harper takes a bite of an apple, plucked from the tree in the courtyard of the rental home. After discovering her “scrumping”, the house’s bumbling but seemingly well-meaning owner, Geoffrey, gives Harper a tour. In this scene, the viewer learns the house’s layout as well, knowledge which will serve in later scenes.

After a video chat with her friend Riley, Harper decides to take a walk into the lush, springtime woods. Harper comes across an abandoned railway tunnel. Here she plays with echoes in the tunnel, creating an overlapping song. Unintentionally, her private melody disturbs a figure on the other end. A man shrieks eerily and begins to charge at her from the other side of the tunnel. Harper scrambles to escape, shattering her idyll and setting the disturbing events of the film in motion.

After a harrowing encounter with this man, and another phone call with her friend, Harper decides to resume her holiday. She walks into the village and comes upon a quaint church. Inside, the altar’s front depicts The Green Man, a mythological male figure symbolizing growth and rebirth. On the altar’s back, however, is a depiction of Sheena-na-gig, a female gargoyle-like figurine which can be interpreted in several ways, both feminist and misogynistic. It is a motif that will occur in later scenes of the film.

The film seems rooted in reality until elements of the supernatural appear and begin to slowly take over. An extended sequence later in the film is equal parts mesmerizing and disturbing. The many literary and symbolic elements of the film draw attention to societal issues while allowing the viewer to sink into another realm entirely.

Both films begin within the realm of the real and slowly shift into the fantastic, using intense visuals and imagery as well as unsettling music. If you are willing to suspend your disbelief for the slow burn of these two films, you will be rewarded with stunning visuals and thoughtful storytelling, allowing for commentary on the relationships between men and women, the legacy of trauma, and the cost of survival.

Grace Grocholski is a part-time librarian, full-time bookworm. In her spare time, she enjoys running, baking, and feeding her online chess addiction.

Soft Liquid Center
Directed by Steph Holmbo, Joseph Kolean, and Zachary Gutierrez
Produced by Karl Kister, Steph Holmbo, Joseph Kolean, and Zachary Gutierrez
Staring Steph Holmbo
Cinematography by Zachary Gutierrez and Joseph Kolean
Music by Roberto Garza
83 Min., 2023, United States
Directed and written by Alex Garland
Produced by Andrew Macdonald
Staring Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear
Cinematography by Rob Hardy
Music by Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barr