British writer and director Alex Garland’s films begin with an individual who has experienced extreme trauma setting out on a journey into the wilderness. In Ex Machina (2014), the sole survivor of a car crash that killed both his parents is helicoptered into a tech mogul’s isolated compound. Annihilation (2018) had the wife of a soldier, who went missing and then returned fundamentally broken, venture into a mysterious zone to find out what happened to her husband. In Men, we meet Harper (Jessie Buckley), an embattled woman seeking solace in the English countryside after her abusive husband, James (Paapa Essiedu), dies in what is either suicide or a horrific accident.
Harper has splashed out on a solo vacation at a 500-year-old country house that looks worthy of a Vogue “73 Questions” celebrity house tour. Garland took inspiration for the setting from the cushy, upper-middle-class environments of screenwriter Richard Curtis’s rom-coms, such as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually: “I wanted the countryside and the house in Men to have that bourgeois reassurance about it – that comfort zone.”
The house and its verdant surroundings promise the perfect space for Harper to begin to heal. She finds moments of grace and levity, walking briskly through the forest on a foggy day and FaceTiming her supportive friend Riley (Gayle Rankin) from the bathtub. For a while, it seems as if Harper might be resilient and well resourced enough to overcome her significant demons. That is, until a terrifying naked man keeps popping up at every turn.
He first interrupts Harper’s walk by staring her down from the end of a tunnel, ready to chase her. Next, he’s in her front yard picking an apple from the tree, before jamming his hand through the letterbox in an attempt to pry his way in. The cops arrive just in time to spear tackle him before things go too far awry. With the weird vagrant safely off the streets, a rattled Harper reapplies herself to the task of rest and relaxation. She seeks solace in a church, only for a touchy-feely vicar to blame her for her husband’s death, and a disturbed child in a Marilyn Monroe mask to call her a “stupid bitch” when she refuses to play hide-and-seek.
At the pub, a police officer informs her the naked interloper has been released and laughs off the suggestion that he was stalking her: “You saw him twice? But I don’t know if he saw you once! It’s not exactly stalking, is it?” It becomes clear that the men of this town are not regular men, or even different people – remarkably, all are played by Rory Kinnear. Rather, they are shapeshifting manifestations of a malevolent force that exists only to torment, hunt and perhaps destroy Harper, all the while gaslighting her into believing that the bumps in the night are all in her head.
Men is an aesthetically stunning film that abounds with references to religion and folklore, beginning with an apple tree that evokes the Garden of Eden. The Green Man keeps rearing his head, a part-man-part-tree figure that appears across ancient cultures worldwide and has more recently been celebrated by hippies and Burning Man enthusiasts as an emblem of environmentalism. Garland takes a more malevolent interpretation. Sheela na gig, the goddess of fertility depicted with exaggerated breasts and genitals, is a recurring symbol, as are ripe fruits and dead animals. Harper is plagued by flashbacks to her husband’s death that take place in a crimson-lit, cloistered room reminiscent of a womb, reinforcing the film’s themes of death, birth and rebirth. Together, the film’s heavy symbolism and Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s haunting choral and orchestral score convey a sense of ancient doom. At times, the levels of tension and dread are unbearable.
Garland’s mastery is in visual communication and aesthetics, rather than dialogue or character development. In Men, as in Garland’s previous films, the characters often feel more like constructs than people, despite excellent acting throughout. This is true not only of the intentionally interchangeable men of the village, but also of Harper, James and Riley. Their respective personalities can be summed up in a couple of adjectives: Harper is stoic and pragmatic, James manipulative and violent, and Riley kind and funny. Once you have clocked these defining traits, little will surprise you about each character’s behaviour.
Garland is a director who can execute simple ideas incredibly well on screen. Ex Machina, his best film to date, explores the generic question of whether a (pretty, female) machine can have sentience. Perhaps it’s not surprising that when you begin to interrogate Men’s premise, it begins to feel irritatingly thin. Is the idea that all men, even the well-meaning, cheerful ones, are driven by a simmering, primal resentment towards women that is passed down intergenerationally? In a post-#MeToo world, the suggestion that to be a woman is to experience constant violence does not feel particularly striking, especially from a male director. And by simply portraying an exaggerated version of myriad ways men behave badly, from false chivalry to all-out brutality, Garland tells us little that we don’t already know.
Of course, it is perfectly okay to experience a piece of art on an experiential rather than an intellectual or political level. And yet, by calling his film Men, Garland is clearly trying to hammer home a point about male violence and female suffering. Unfortunately, the only discernible message to be found is that misogyny is omnipresent and intractable. If you’ve been paying attention at all, Men will not rock your understanding of gender dynamics.
Approached as an aesthetic experience and a thrilling horror film, it will make your heart skip a beat. At least until the absurd ending, which feels tonally out of step with the rest of the film and had the audience in my screening in fits of confused and appalled laughter. Sometimes the only way to respond in the face of something truly terrifying – men, for example – is to laugh and shrug. That’s the only resolution Men can offer.
Men is showing in cinemas now.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 11, 2022 as "Men about town".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription