Cinematic Releases: Alex Garland's Men Explores Misogyny Through Body Horror


Image Courtesy of A24

Alex Garland isn't shy about making ambiguous films--while Ex Machina (2014) was a fairly straightforward sci-fi flick, his follow-up film Annihilation (2018) delved heavily into surreal territory and had an ending that was cryptic to say the least. His latest film Men (2022) dives headfirst into full on allegory territory, and is destined to be divisive and heavily discussed for a long time.

Jessie Buckley plays Harper, a young woman who has just exited a toxic marriage to her ex-husband James (Papa Essiedu), a man who physically and mentally abused her, culminating in him threatening to kill himself if she left him. She stands firm in her decision and tragedy ensues. In order to distance herself from the devastation, Harper rents a house in the countryside to relax for a bit on a solo vacation. Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), the owner of the house seems affable enough, but Harper is understandably guarded and stand-offish after her recent experience with her ex-husband. As Harper explores the forests and the small village near her rental she discovers that something isn't right and that a larger malevolent force might have its eyes on her.

Image Courtesy of A24

In choosing the simple and curt title Men for the film, Garland was able to tap into online zeitgeist that word conjures up--especially the last several years with sexism, misogyny, and abuse being in the forefront of discussions around Hollywood. The most interesting aspect of the film is that Rory Kinnear plays every single male role in the film other than Harper's ex-husband. Garland even goes so far as to digitally superimpose Kinnear's face onto a child's body which triggers one's sense of uncanny valley. In this way every man is essentially one man, a singular hostile force, united by a poisonous ideology.

The first half of the film has the feel of a mystical folk horror, as Harper traverses through the beautiful verdant greenery, but the mood quickly turns dark as she is stalked by a seemingly feral nude man. She expresses her fear to the local police force but is gaslit by them into thinking he isn't a threat (by male cops who all have the same face). A local boy calls her a "stupid bitch", the village priest imposes unwanted sexual advances, seemingly everywhere Harper goes the men are either dismissive or outright menacing. There are faint echoes of Roman Polanski's 1965 film Repulsion in which all male presence is tainted and nefarious and the protagonist is trapped by her own fear. Harper seems to be much stronger mentally than the woman in Repulsion and she tries to fight back against the animosity.

Image Courtesy of A24

There is no one "correct" way to read this film, and it is very likely that every single person will come out with a different perspective after watching Men. The third act explodes into a grotesque and gory existential body horror, in which the viewer gets to watch the continual birth of a terrible ideology that is passed down to each new generation until it ends up as the person who hurt Harper. A man who destroyed her perception of all men turning them into Legion, a demon made of many men with an identical face, united by the same evil running through all of them. Biblical references abound in Men, from the apple that Eve eats to the sexually repressed fervor of the Catholic church.

Men is purposefully vague and ambivalent, and is not afraid to toss formality aside for atmosphere and vibes. This approach will probably frustrate a lot of viewers, but it will also generate some intriguing discussion. It is unclear at times if the film is critiquing only men as it could be read as a "not all men" argument as well, because of the contrast between all the men looking like Kinnear and not like Essiedu who plays the man who actually hurt Harper. Either way, Men is a haunting and challenging piece of work.

--Michelle Kisner