Longtime Hollywood go-to genre screenwriter Alex Garland has only directed two other movies, 2015’s Ex Machina and 2018’s Annihilation, both using the realm of science fiction to explore feminine trauma and the sea change of societies on a precipice. I loved Ex Machina and admired but didn’t fully enjoy Annihilation. His newest movie, a small-scale indie horror titled Men, lands somewhere in the middle. It’s in keeping with his other movies, following a woman named Harper (Jessie Buckley) dealing with trauma, and it’s atmospheric while still maintaining a clear point of view that could likely rub people the wrong way. It’s an uncomfortable nightmare of a horror movie and one that isn’t as deep as it appears to be.
Men accomplishes what I had been hoping with 2021’s Chaos Walking, namely portraying everyday life as a woman as a living horror movie. It’s a highly metaphorical and atmospheric movie but, at its core, it’s all about the danger, discomfort, and indignities that women endure on a near daily basis dealing with men. I don’t think the movie has as much to say on the topic or is as ambiguous as others are presenting (more on this later), but its central theme is so bracingly direct and deeply unsubtle but sometimes a sledgehammer is better than a scalpel. This is an intense movie from the start and a frequent reminder of the hazards of being female in a patriarchy. Each of the men that Harper encounters represents a different facet of toxic masculinity. The seemingly kindly priest, who places his hand on Harper’s thigh to “calm her,” is projecting guilt and blame onto her for the actions of men and views her femininity as a corrupting and tempting influence, very akin to Eve. The little boy, who likes wearing creepy masks, is a brat who refuses to accept no for an answer and turns on a dime into verbal attacks, much like the men of the Internet ready to flip at a moment’s notice. The police officer is dismissive of Harper’s account of being harassed and threatened, representing a legal arm that often downplays and diminishes women as victims. There’s even Geoffrey, who seems almost like the best man in town by default, is aloof, doesn’t understand boundaries, and is trying to present himself as a “nice guy” looking for his delayed dues. The only person in town that seems sympathetic to Harper is the one female police officer who takes her statement. Each man is played by Rory Kinnear (Our Flag Means Death) for thematic reasons. I’ve read people complain, “Why wouldn’t Harper realize this obvious similarity in the town’s men?” The answer is simple: it’s because the men do not literally all look the same. It’s meant to reflect Harper’s perspective, much like 2015’s Anomalisa where the protagonist viewed every person as looking and sounding like Tom Noonan until one unique voice cuts through the malaise and monotony. This movie is wall-to-wall with uncomfortable, seething misogyny in many forms, and given the times we live in, I wouldn’t blame any woman saying, “No thanks.” I’m glad I watched this one alone and without my now-fiance, as she would have brought this up forever as a “You made me watch…” tease.
The flashbacks with Harper’s unstable ex-husband James (Paapa Essiedu) are the most personally illuminating and make up a significant portion of the narrative, as Harper is forced into her painful memories from her present encounters. Her husband showcases clear signs of being mentally ill and is also verbally and physically abusive to her. He greets her news about seeking a divorce by declaring that if she doesn’t take him back, he will kill himself. This emotional blackmail feels par for the course in this relationship and another sign why Harper would want out for her own well-being. The movie opens with Harper watching James fall to his death, and this trauma is what she’s processing through every male interaction. James is indicative of a kind of man that imposes demands on their partner without holding themselves to the same standards, but it goes beyond hypocrisy; it’s about a damaged person who holds another hostage with further threats of their damage. It’s a person who puts the entire onus of their existence onto another, removing their own personal responsibility, and thus blaming the convenient external party when something inevitably goes wrong. This central relationship is revisited in different ways throughout the movie, and you could even argue that Men is a metaphorical journey of Harper trying to shed herself from the weight of this disturbed dead man.
However, the real draw of Men is its allegorical nature and that is bound to rub plenty of viewers differently. The best comparison I can make is 2017’s mother!, a deeply polarizing movie from Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream) that completely existed as a none-too-subtle Biblical allegory as the primary plot. Usually, screenwriters will work with metaphor and allegory as subtext, adding extra depth and meaning to their storytelling. We don’t expect it to serve as the primary narrative. With Men, like mother!, it is indeed the primary narrative. I can reduce the plot down to this description: woman explores English countryside and is harassed by men of various forms. To be fair, Jaws could be reduced to “guys try to kill big shark,” so this is a little reductive. The emphasis is on exploring the experiences that Harper is enduring, her exploration of nature and seclusion that, at each turn, gets sabotaged by a man. If you’re not open to a narrative that is a little looser and more atmospheric, you’ll find the movie to be plodding and overwrought. When Act Three kicks in, the movie goes full-on into bonkers horror and isn’t even flirting with a direct correlation with reality any longer. I can safely say that some of the bizarre imagery is truly some of the strangest and grossest things I’ve ever seen in any movie. The chief symbol (toxic men begetting toxic men) is central to the icky body horror cavalcade.
However, the movie’s allegory doesn’t lend itself to much in the way of interpretation. That’s not exactly a creative hindrance; stories can simply be what they are intended to be. Men is fairly obvious what it’s about even from the starting point of its one-word title. It’s a movie heavy in allegory but the allegory itself is also pretty unambiguous and straightforward. There may be interpretation for this symbol or that but Garland’s horror movie is pretty much thematically obvious. It all supports his theme about the horror of being a woman in modern society, magnified across a metaphorical horror movie canvas. I’m sure there will be others who go into great detail to dissect this movie but all of it seems to come to the same basic conclusion, and that’s fine.
Men is the kind of movie that almost wears out its welcome at 100 minutes. The technical merits are strong, the photography and imagery are lush and transporting, and Buckley (The Lost Daughter) is a great actress to hinge a story of mounting distress and terror. If you’re the kind of person that seeks out new cinematic avenues of nightmare fuel, then the final act and its chief monster with its distinct disfigurement will sate your morbid appetite. It’s an effective and evocative movie but it’s also the same thesis statement hammered again and again. While the movie has some perplexing moments, there isn’t much to unpack as far as meaning, and ultimately that can limit some of the play of a movie built on the engine of metaphor. It feels like a scream against the overwhelming and entrenched social forces of misogyny, and I cannot say whether it’s worth 100 minutes of squirm-inducing discomfort of art imitating all-too-real life.
Nate’s Grade: B-