‘Men’ Is a Bit of a Clickbait Title
A personal retreat to the countryside seems like a straightforward thing to arrange. A necessary thing if, say, your husband who you planned to divorce plummeted to his grisly death from the London highrise where you live. This is the situation in which we find Harper (Jessie Buckley, ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’) at the beginning of ‘Men.’ Her healing trip is disrupted, however, when an enigmatic, naked man stalks her on a walk through the woods. Resolving not to let fear rule her, Harper attempts to explore the sleepy village where she’s chosen to stay, but each interaction she has with the men who live there (Rory Kinnear, who plays seven distinct characters) gives her more reason to stay locked inside.
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You may recognize the director for his brilliant work on ‘Ex Machina’ or ‘28 Days Later,’ but ‘Men’ is an entity unto itself. Alex Garland’s nightmarish vision of trauma and dread will leave you with more questions than answers, but will likely haunt you long enough that you come up with answers of your own. If you go into this movie expecting it to deliver a clear message about what it’s like to be a woman gaslit by men, you will be disappointed and needlessly horrified at the unforgettable body-horror ending. ‘Men’ does explore gaslighting and toxic masculinity to a certain extent, but ultimately to create a sense of dread that can be universally felt. It delivers something more timeless than a series of talking points about hot button issues.
Life in ‘Men’
The first act of the movie unfurls slowly, but gorgeously. Harper receives the horror-staple tour of the idyllic home she’s renting for the week from the offputting landlord Geoffrey. Whenever she’s left alone to savor it, the home reveals itself as beautiful and its grounds as fruitful (be ready for a lot of forbidden fruit in the garden imagery). This is a new beginning for Harper, only disrupted by Geoffrey’s awkwardness. She then takes a walk through the woods, where Rob Hardy’s cinematography is on full display in a sequence of nature shots that revel in the quiet workings of creation.
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Harper, in a state of childlike wonder, creates something herself. Upon encountering a huge tunnel, Harper calls out a series of echoes that create a sort of song in one of the eeriest, most brilliant scenes in the film. In doing so, she unintentionally awakens the Green Man, a living version of an ancient symbol. The tunnel becomes a Platonic cave from which that primordial creature stirs, and the creeping dread it causes underscores the rest of the movie.
‘Men’ is heavily symbolic throughout its 100-minute run. One symbol that a lot of people have pointed to is the Sheela Na Gig on the church’s baptismal font, a symbol often taken (perhaps mistaken) to represent fertility. Sheela Na Gigs, however, are as mysterious in meaning as the film itself. Even in the first scenes of the film, when the narrative is clearest, the ideas of life, death, and rebirth are muddily intertwined, as flashbacks to Harper’s husband James’ (Paapa Essiedu, ‘I May Destroy You’) death still play in her mind.
Death and Rebirth in ‘Men’
Harper’s Edenic impression of the village quickly sours, and the imagery follows. After finding out that the Green Man has been loosed once more (I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot), we are shown a deer rotting in the woods, then the Green Man ritualistically attaching foliage to his person, then the deer carcass again, this time covered in maggots. Throughout the film, images like these give us pause to confront the messiness of the cycle of life.
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Towards the end of the film, after the men Harper has interacted with become a shapeshifting monster that takes on the men’s forms in succession, the Green Man entrances Harper, setting off a final act that plays out like a hallucination. At this point in the movie, the creature is so symbolically tied to death and rebirth that it’s impossible not to associate Harper’s confrontation with it with the lifecycle of her own trauma.
She tries killing the conglomerate man-thing, then tries running from it, and as those things fail it becomes more important for her to understand what the thing is in the first place. She has to understand why her deceased husband resorted to abusive behavior in order to process what she’s been through and experience a rebirth of her own. Luckily (or perhaps unluckily) for her, the Green Man has a series of birthings in store to make that viscerally known to her.
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If you’ve heard anything about ‘Men,’ you’ve heard about the finale, which Garland described as a “rolling birth” in an interview for IndieWire. Garland took inspiration from ‘Attack on Titan’ to stylize the rolling birth which, briefly explained, consists of four of the men, starting with the Green Man, birthing another of the men in the film. The man this rolling birth finally lands on is James, who sits with Harper on the couch. She asks what he wants from her, and he says “your love.” Harper reacts with a “yeah” that’s about as unimpressed as the audience at that response, and this lame moment is precisely what makes the film brilliant.
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By giving us an exact answer to the question of what this series of men want from Harper, Garland leaves us with the same questions that troubled us in the first place. How does that neediness translate to toxic male behavior? Why do men feel the instinct to blame women for their own shortcomings? Isn’t there something more soluble and less pathetic at the bottom of all of this? We want the behavior to be explained away. We want Harper to be the clear victim. We want the Sheela Na Gig to make perfect sense. Unfortunately, personal and generational traumas are not so easily dispensed with.
Ending Number Two
The movie’s title ends up taking on a meaning closer to “mankind” despite basing its horror so deeply in gendered symbolism. The morning after Harper’s confrontation with all these men, she sits in the garden with a flower and smiles at her friend Riley (Gayle Rankin) who drove up to meet her after a failed distress call. We see fallout from the night before, so we know that it was not entirely dreamed up, and if we are to believe that the night before had the significance it seemed to, then we also know that Harper is not done experiencing death and rebirth. She’s in a hopeful state of rebirth right now, but life and trauma both happen in cycles, as they have since the dawn of men.
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She did, however, confront her trauma so directly that we can imagine the next few times around will be progressively easier. Throughout the film, Harper progressively becomes more disconnected from the world outside until she loses literal connection in the middle of her distress call to Riley. If my unsolicited dissection of the film resonates with you, perhaps you’ll entertain the idea that Harper’s disconnection is meant to portray a truer confrontation of trauma than what is offered by many contemporary self-help ideas. She initially takes an approach that you’d find in a magazine: take a vacation, get some fresh air, try something new. While those things can all help, she ultimately has to be in a state of isolation to deal with what troubles her, and indeed the longer she interacts with the source of that dreadful feeling covering everything, the weaker it becomes.
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Overthinking a Horror Show
The audacity and mystique of ‘Men’ has already made it Alex Garland’s most divisive film so far, but I recommend it if you have the stomach for it. I’ve probably exhibited some of the behaviors of the vicar by doing all of this yearning and desperate explanation, so I can only hope you don’t feel too preached to. Whether or not you agree with my interpretation of the film, I want to suggest to you that it has quite a lot of substance to it, even if the meaning of it isn’t perfectly clear. It’s easy to walk out of the movie feeling stultified by the labor of watching so much labor, but the more you let ‘Men’ sit with you, the closer you’ll come to understand whatever it is that it means to you.
Cast: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu, Gayle Rankin
Creator: Alex Garland | Producers: Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, Cahal Bannon
Cinematography: Rob Hardy | Editing: Jake Roberts
By Kevin Hauger
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