Directed & Written by Alex Garland
Starring Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu, & Gayle Rankin.
Fantasy /Horror / Thriller
★★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
In Alex Garland’s Men, Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) takes a vacation by herself after the tragic death of her almost-ex-husband James (Paapa Essiedu), heading into the English countryside where she rents a lavish house for a few days of peace. When she arrives she’s greeted by the house’s caretaker, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), an eccentric, albeit very courteous man. After Harper’s alone at the house a while, she sees a naked man stalking around the property and calls the police. This is only the tip of an odd, unsettling iceberg. The rest of Harper’s vacation gets more terrifying with each passing hour.
Men is an elaborate, surreal exploration of misogyny across the past two millennia via a microcosm of one woman’s struggle in the aftermath of a tragedy that’s scapegoated her as its cause. Harper’s experience at the country house where she’s escaped for a vacation away from her life becomes like the trials and tribulations of all women historically in the face of patriarchal control and misogynistic hatred. And Geoffrey becomes the creepy embodiment of all that history, from the social and the political to art and literature, personifying men’s undying misogyny.
“This is the control you exert”
Harper acts as a contemporary Eve figure, the original historical repository for all male blame and misogyny, at least since the supposed birth of Jesus Christ. This is introduced early when Geoffrey makes a “forbidden fruit” joke, after mention of Harper “scrumping” (a definition for non-UK folks) for apples that come the property’s bountiful apple tree. An obvious piece of symbolism, but it’s not continually referenced via dialogue, so it sits beneath the surface until the plot gets much more intense later. We see great shots after Harper’s rushing frantically around the country house where the apples have fallen from the tree, scattered over the lawn; an image of inundation in temptation yet also one that perhaps suggests that Harper/Eve’s so-called transgressions have shed the tree of its fruit completely, the powerful sin of woman unleashed. At the core of Eve’s story in the Bible is the idea that Eve seduced or urged Adam into biting the apple, scapegoating women as luring men into disobedience and sin. Geoffrey, in his form of the priest later, similarly chastises Harper by saying: “This is the control you exert.” From the Bible to classic literature, Garland uses various pieces of symbolism to further expand upon historical misogyny and the weight it still puts on contemporary women.
The symbolism, from Biblical to literature, that Garland uses in Men encompasses two millennia of blame, hatred, and violence against women. From Eve, Garland first moves onto the figures of Green Man and Sheela na gig, which Harper sees at a church in the nearby village to her rental. Even the compared physicality of Green Man v. that of Sheela na gig is interesting. Green Man carvings are typically portrayed just as a face, whereas Sheela na gig carvings are sexual and semi-grotesque in their depiction. While there have been plenty of feminist reinterpretations of Sheela na gig, it’s still interesting to see two gendered images from 1,000 to 2,000 years ago depicting men and women in such disparate physical ways. Some scholars suggest that Sheela na gig, like Gothic gargoyles and other sculptures, was used to ward off evil spirits, which suggests that the gaping vaginal openings on the carvings are supposed to be terrifying to the spirits. This resonates with something the priest says later when he likens a woman’s vagina to “the tip of a blade,” positing that women’s sexuality is a dangerous thing. Garland further makes use of poetry via the priest to compound all of man’s misogynistic ideas about women throughout history. The priest references two different poems. First, he quotes from “Leda and the Swan” by W.B. Yeats: “A shudder in the loins engenders there / The broken wall, the burning roof and tower / And Agamemnon dead.” Yeats was drawing from the mythic story of Zeus disguising himself as a swan in order to rape Leda, daughter of Aetolian King Thestius. He also calls himself “a swan.” Second, he quotes from “Ulysses and the Siren” by Samuel Daniel in which a siren says: “For beauty hath created been / T‘ undo, or be undone;” a fatalistic and sexist view of the beauty of women. The sirens were mythological misogynistic scapegoats, like Eve, who were blamed for luring men to their deaths by way of beauty and song. Both Daniels and Yeats’s poems, while written in the modern historical era, involve mythological misogyny, drawing from the patriarchal attitudes of mythic Greek figures and in turn reinforcing them. This also pushes the references in Men back beyond the birth of Christ into the times of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, displaying just how extensive is the male history of misogyny, refusing to lay all that blame solely at Christianity’s door.
Perhaps the most significant moment of symbolism in the entire film occurs when the naked man returns to the house’s garden and Harper finds him on the ground with a big pregnant belly. The naked man comes to represent the mythological figure of the Green Man, and so, along with the Sheela na gig imagery in the film, we see Green Man ‘birthing’ a line of misogynistic men—starting with Samuel, then the priest, then Geoffrey, and finally James—like a fleshy Russian doll of patriarchal horrors. In a sense, this pivotal scene is saying that while women have historically given birth to the next generation(s) literally, men have been busy giving birth to generations upon generations of misogyny, patriarchy, and gendered violence into the world.Harper is “haunted,” as she says, by the death of her (nearly) ex-husband, so everything in Men could be the surreal manifestation of years of internalised misogyny and the internal patriarchal Panopticon within Harper after a lifetime of adhering to men’s perspectives and their rules. Or perhaps Harper accidentally wandered into the actual Garden of Eden tucked away in the English countryside. Either way, Garland’s use of surrealism allows so much literature and history to be cobbled together in a single 100-minute film, giving the viewer mountains of symbolism to interpret however they see fit.
Whether Harper’s experience is surreal vision or a genuine supernatural experience, Men is a keen cinematic exercise of horrific proportions about the experiences of women in a world dominated by the ugly, violent, misogynistic views of men. At one point Harper is seen standing alone under a starry sky, after Geoffrey—a previously nice-seeming man now turned psychotic male like the rest of the men in the area—tries to run her down in her own car, and she looks up into the dark, swirling cosmos above her in a painful recognition of a woman’s place in a world of bad men. Though the film is even more specifically about women with controlling male partners, and how that control goes on to haunt women, even after the relationship ends, or even after the man dies. In a late scene, a ghostly vision of James lists off the injuries he experienced during his death, telling Harper hatefully: “This is what you did.”
Men is ultimately about the Gothic terrors men impose on women, from individual relationships to society as a whole. Harper’s terrifying visit to the country is a surreal cinematic ride, but it’s likewise the everyday experience for so many women who deal with daily misogyny from the micro to the macro, all of it damaging and violent in its own way.