‘Men’ is as garishly simple as its title implies
The writer-director of Ex Machina and Annihilation with a film born of brutish simplicity
Since he was still only known as a writer, Alex Garland had attempted to pen an abstract horror script for 15 years birthed from one of the core visuals in Men, the Green Man. That symbol is one that, in European countries and beyond, is thought to have represented the cycle of rebirth present in the spring months, but it sports no definitive meaning as an architectural motif. Perhaps fittingly then, Garland’s recently released Men shares its own lack of definitive meaning with the Green Man motif: it has a striking exterior that seemingly seeks to make you uncomfortable, but the meaning of that face is absent from the overall work which leaves it as not much more than a spooky visual.
Frankly, it also makes sense that Garland has been working on this script for 15 years. With a title this straightforward, this much time in the oven and the history of Garland’s work, I certainly expected a movie that had at least some insight. But even though Men is seemingly handcrafted to bait disgusted reactions and ‘Ending Explained!’ videos on YouTube, in reality it’s incredibly plain with its themes that would’ve maybe felt insightful 10 years ago when feminist was more of a dirty word than it still is.
After the death of her husband, Harper (Jessie Buckley) retreats to a manor in the English countryside in hope that she can heal from her recent past. There she meets Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) and a small variety of other men (also all Rory Kinnear) who come to remind her of the past in increasingly disturbing ways. Some of the best moments in Men come from Buckley’s natural talent as an actress, pushing herself into new territory from drama into horror. She excels as a woman being put through hell, as does Kinnear as the men who keep her there. These are near close to the only performances in the film, and it’s a testament to both their abilities that they essentially carry Men.
Their performances are not the only highlights, as the work behind the scenes is often just as great. Garland’s regular cinematographer Rob Hardy returns to provide some stunning visuals as he did in Ex Machina and Annihilation. The score is also utilised pretty effectively, incorporating Buckley’s voice and creating an overall unpleasant vibe through which most of the film’s horror is generated. There are certainly moments in Men that will make your skin crawl or close your eyes if you’re particularly squeamish, but I found its more subtle horror aspects more rewarding than its outright gore.
That being said, “subtle” is hardly a word that is in Men’s dictionary. I think it’s definitely fair to call Garland a feminist filmmaker: Ex Machina is pretty clearly about different types of men and how they view women put through the filter of AI and robot creation. I’m not so sure about Annihilation, as it seems to spend ample time stressing the trauma of the five women at its helm and that Lena’s motivation for her journey is intrinsically linked to her husband, but I think it still works rather well as a piece of cosmic horror. As such, you can maybe see why it perplexed me that Men’s observations on feminism are so austere, so unchallenging in their depiction of the men at the core of the story.
Harper is a character built entirely around her trauma. I’ve had discussions recently where I think it’s a general problem in film that for women to have depth, writers often feel the need to give them horrible life-altering trauma to ensure the audience sympathises with them. Men might be a different case, since the film is essentially about Harper’s trauma as she recovers from an extremely toxic relationship and finds no solace in the cold brutality of the other men around here. The fact that Kinnear’s face appears on almost every man’s face in the film is in itself indicative of that trauma, but I think one of the film’s biggest issues is that those men are almost all comically awful towards Harper.
There’s not a single male in the film that isn’t either obviously hostile or patronizing towards Harper. This makes the conflict of the film feel so incredibly obvious and alleviates much of the tension. They aren’t just passively sexist like Ex Machina’s Caleb, but instead openly as they treat her with hostility and blame her for the trauma she has suffered. I want to stress: THIS FILM DID NOT NEED A NICE MAN IN IT TO BE GOOD, NOR DID IT NEED TO COMPLICATE THE FEAR WOMEN FEEL TOWARDS MEN! But what I think disappoints about the villains of Men so much is that they are so obviously that: villains. They pretty much exist only to serve as trauma incarnate to torment Harper, which only becomes more apparent through the film’s increasingly gory and thematically off-putting third act. As such, Men really only has one thematic and horror element that it squeezes the absolute life out of during its short run time, mixed with juvenile horror and largely agreeable sentiment.
Ultimately, the strongest message that Men can seem to muster is that men are often awful to women, and that this vision of masculinity is passed down and ingrained into every man as a part of societal upbringing. I can’t help but feel like such an observation is brutally obvious — we only need look at the way women are continually treated today when coming forth about traumatic events to see that society’s construction of the masculine continues to have an uncomfortable stranglehold over culture at large.
Men only consolidates this fact rather than expanding on it. I honestly don’t think Garland was the right director for a concept such as this; it feels like a mere acknowledgement of the issue rather than a full-on exploration, which I really think did not need to be explored by a male director in 2022. He says that he wants Men to be remembered “[not] as a film, but as a participant in the conversation.” Although I will certainly remember his film for some of its gorgeous cinematography and bloodier moments, I can’t help but feel the conversation that it’s trying to join is long gone.