Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear
Words: Carly Stevenson.
Alex Garland’s third film, following Ex Machina (2015) and Annihilation (2018), makes effective use of the trappings of folk horror to explore the reproduction of misogyny.
Jessie Buckley plays Harper, an abuse survivor who retreats to the countryside to heal after witnessing her husband fall or jump to his death from an upstairs window. Her staycation takes a sinister turn when she encounters a series of unsavoury characters in the local area: first, she meets Geoffrey, the host of the Airbnb in which she is staying, who jokingly chides her for eating “forbidden fruit” (an apple from a tree in the garden), reminds her not to flush tampons down the toilet, addresses her as ‘Mrs Marlowe’ and tactlessly asks “where’s hubby?”.
Harper shrugs off these microaggressions and heads for the woods, where she happens upon an abandoned railway tunnel – a glaring yonic symbol if ever there was one. In what is perhaps the most well-orchestrated scene in the film, Harper stands in the entrance of the tunnel and listens to the sound of her voice echoing. Her solitude is soon invaded by the appearance of a figure at the other end of the tunnel who seems to run towards her. Spooked, Harper flees to higher ground, only to encounter a naked man loitering in the verdure. Anyone familiar with fairy tales will know that women are not safe in the woods and there’s more than a hint of Red Riding Hood here.
Indeed, the film is replete with fairy tale imagery. Pay attention to the axe by the fireplace early on – it becomes significant. These run-ins serve as a reminder of what women and people of marginalised genders know instinctively: nature offers no shelter from the threat of male violence.
Arguably one of the most interesting issues Garland explores in Men is the reality that women’s interactions with the natural world are routinely interrupted by this familiar terror. Garland’s reimagining of the Green Man as a symbol of primordial masculinity speaks to this.
The film’s central device – every man Harper meets is a different incarnation of Rory Kinnear – drives home the message that patriarchy is pervasive and self-replicating.
Some reviewers have criticised this method as unsubtle, but I’m not convinced it needs to be. The rendering of an exaggerated type of maleness as theatrical seems entirely appropriate in this context.
The forms Kinnear takes embody the all-too-recognisable guises of misogyny: an aggressive adolescent boy who feels entitled to Harper’s attention, a policeman who dismisses her concerns about a naked stalker, and a predatory vicar who blames her for her husband’s death while groping her knee (he later quotes from W.B. Yeats’s sonnet ‘Leda and the Swan’ – a small detail that hints at the bigger picture). The scenes with the vicar are particularly unnerving in that they highlight the role Christianity plays in perpetuating myths about women.
Garland merges Christian and pagan symbols to show how patriarchy is sustained by multiple power structures and belief systems. It is no coincidence that the leering face of the Green Man lurks in the most patriarchal of spaces – a church. Significantly, the opposite side of the altar features a carving of the sheela na gig – a hotly contested grotesque of female carnality. Make of that what you will.
The final part of this review contains spoilers.
Men culminates with a Cronenbergian body horror sequence in which Harper bears witness to the violent, mutated rebirth of all the men who have terrorised her, including her abusive late husband. Even in death, he demands unconditional, self-sacrificing love. A surreal exploration of the cycle of male violence, Men bears some resemblance to Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! (2017). Both films lean heavily on religious symbolism to make a point about gender and power. The key difference is that Harper emerges from her ordeal with a sense of agency. Unlike Mother!, Harper breaks free of the cycle.