I’m a big fan of Alex Garland’s recent films so I was very much looking forward to seeing what an out and out horror movie directed by him would be like. Men (2022) has received mixed reviews on release, with many complaining that the story didn’t make sense, most particularly the ending. I felt that it did show coherence throughout, albeit in a metaphorical or allegorical fashion.
In brief, Men is a horror film about the patriarchy. The way it robs you of your freedom, your solitude, your independence and your sanity with its relentless presentation, its insistence on perpetuating itself (both in conversation and then later literally), its myriad microaggressions. Many of the key moments in the film involve small moments that add up to a frightening whole: a hand on a knee, a phrase, an overstepping, a reluctance to believe or take seriously. Even a choice of honorific has an hurtful and intimidating connotation here.
Our protagonist Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) is taking a fortnight to herself after a traumatic row with her husband James (Paapa Essiedu) that resulted in his death. She seeks to simply be, to exist and to heal in this rented estate in the country; instead, at every avenue, she is pestered or harassed by a series of males, all of whom bear the same face (that of Rory Kinnear). Their offences become more and more brazen throughout. Harper is remarkably adamant in her own point of view and this appears to rankle.
The ending – wherein one man gives birth to another, and then that man gives birth to yet another, and so on until we arrive at James again, who sits up with Harper and persists in blaming her for his death – entails the conjunction of two very old, even pagan ideas: that of the Green Man and that of the Sheela Na Gig (this is the reason too that Men is referred to as a folk horror; I would quibble with that, but it’s a digression). These figures are depicted in the film as two sides of the same baptismal font in a spooky church Harper visits at one point.
The film is suggesting some union of the male and female pagan (re)birthing energies, and this I think is key to understanding why these men are suddenly giving birth to each other at the end. It’s also making implicit the connection between her overtly aggressive late husband and the men in the town who have been so relentless in their own aggressions. When Riley (Gayle Rankin) arrives to see her friend, it’s clear that these women share a strong bond beyond friendly phonecalls. One can see how they flourish in each other’s presence.
And this brings me to two key pieces of the puzzle most people seem to have overlooked, the answer James gives when Harper asks him what he wants from her (“love”), and the following shot of a dandelion losing its seeds played in reverse. Is love the key to patriarchy? A woman’s love for a man? Doing away with that entire construct (“he loves me, he loves me not”) may then be where happiness lies. A good hang with a good friend out in the countryside. Like Midsommar, perhaps this is a happy ending in disguise.
Is the film problematic? Most definitely, not least because James is the only person of colour in the whole thing, and he’s an unbalanced, aggressive person at that. There is also the issue of gender ‘essentialism’ going on – the film is called Men, after all. The fact that Riley arrives alone and pregnant at the end is very interesting, I thought. It further suggests a future free of men. Would I recommend watching Men? If you like A24 films (for it is such a one), and/or body horror, give it a go.