So, before I (a man) comment on Men, the feminist folk horror from writer and director Alex Garland (also a man), I’ll tell a story. At a gender studies in contemporary cinema seminar in which I was the only male attendee, I was asked for an example of a recent, effective feminist film whose key creative was a man. I panicked, and rightly or wrongly plucked Garland’s directorial debut, Ex Machina, out of nowhere—citing it as an imperfect but scathing attack on media’s “woman as prize” trope. A male dominated genre, promotional material focusing on a woman’s (cybernetic) body and centred around the gaze of its male characters as they debated an AI woman’s autonomy; it pulled off a delightful, subversive sucker punch in its final act. She is granted her freedom, and the men are surprised when she offers them nothing in return. Equality isn’t equality if it comes with debt. Since, Garland leaned more heavily into a woman’s narrative perspective and struggled to tell it alone, in the pretentious, misguided Annihilation. And now, he’s gone full hog with Men. And the results are divisive.
Harper (Jessie Buckley) retreats to a country home in idyllic Hertfordshire, no longer a ‘Mrs’ to her briefly seen husband James (Paapa Essiedu) and unwilling to explain the specifics when asked by housekeeper Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear). After a forest walk becomes a run for survival from a mysterious, naked stalker, she finds herself facing a torrent of micro and macro aggressions from all of the villages men. A useless police officer (Kinnear), a victim-blaming vicar (also Kinnear), a troubled child (you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise with this one, but no: they’re all Kinnear) each look similar, act similar, and pose similar danger to one another in Harper’s progressively more twisted world. ‘Not All Men’ is a prevalent enough moniker that you’d expect this to be the primary route Garland and his team take, but the results are at once less and more sophisticated than what you’d expect.
Because, Men faces a lot of valid criticism. Harper’s internal character is intrinsically tied to one man. Another A24 film presenting surreal imagery, beginnings of ideas, and a narrative about emotional trauma as “elevated horror.” An opening that looks like a corporate video; and an ending so goofily, gorily berserk it can make or break your experience. And primarily, being too simplistic in its approach to gender discourse and violence that those who’ll benefit from it may likely never seek it out. And I won’t dispute these claims; it’s a film that is constructed far better than it is expressed. But that’s one side of the coin, the Green Man to the Sheela-na-gig on the statues dotted around the film. You also have to be loved to be divisive, and many have connected with Garland’s gonzo effort.
This is a brute force parable about a systemic culture of misogyny, yes; but more specifically, it acts like a complex calling out of mens treatment of women as beasts of emotional and psychological burden. Harper is shown a piano by Geoffrey and asked if she can play. She says no, yet later, alone, she plays virtuously—a moment of improvisation from Buckley. It’s a familiar feeling for those who have ever sought the protection of safe spaces; those tired of suffering others ideas and expectations being placed upon them. In the flashes we see of the end of James and Harper’s marriage, he attempts to subject her to the mercy of his needs. His manipulation. His autonomy. And his one brief silence comes when she demands he think about her need for a life instead.
That one fight between the couple is Men’s crux, as each of James arguments thrown at her in a manipulative attempt to force her into staying is reflected in the Rory Kinnear-played men she meets. Intimidation, patronisation, violence, friendliness, neediness, boyishness. Each is a façade for this implacable, extreme hatred that flows from the men in the village to the man she loved to Harper. And then there’s the final act, which I will try not to spoil. While some have described it as a literalising of the perpetuating cycle of misogynistic attitudes, which it is, I also viewed it as representing the failure of male reconciliation with their treatment of women. It’s an extremely graphic false apology, a mock display of “I understand how you feel.” The first instance this set piece happens, Harper reacts with horror. The second, she turns her head away, bored. The third she turns her back and walks away. By the end, she isn’t even in the room to acknowledge it. Like James begging, pleading for her to stay with him, the effect wears off. And when the men’s rage is emasculated, and she can find a truth to why they had to make it be this way, the answer is pitiable. Because he wanted her love. Just another form of manipulation.
Men’s pair of absolute standouts—two of the best and still relatively undiscovered actors working today in Buckley and Kinnear—made comment on their films reception in an interview with The Independent. ‘I like the extremes of opinion it’s going to instil in people’, said Buckley, after both opined Men was a ‘provocative’ narrative more interested in asking questions than answering. Some may say that’s a cop-out. Others may take the lead. Either way, it will certainly get a conversation going.