The A24 film Men (2022) is Alex Garland’s newest and third directorial project. His previous works include Ex Machina and Annihaliation. It is evident that weird, cosmic horror is Garland’s forte and Men is certainly no exception. It is a folk, body horror tale in which the protagonist, Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley), is staying at an isolated farmhouse in the remote village Cotson. It is a charming place, with expansive furnished rooms, floor-to-ceiling windows, a elegant garden with an exquisite apple tree. The perfect getaway for a woman who needs time to grieve after witnessing her husband kill himself.
Loneliness is a sin for women in horror
Men is an artistic piece in every sense of the word. After getting her things settled, Harper wonders on her own to explore a nearby forest. She follows a path with flourishing green vegetation and laughs to herself when small rain drops start to fall. The imagery is gentle, even if it is exhaustively comparing womanhood to nature.
When Harper wanders to a tunnel, she plays with the acoustics and sings as loud as she can. She is at peace, hope and comfort beaming in her eyes. But of course, this is ruined when a mysterious, shadowy figure at the end of the tunnel stands up and starts running at her. It is a reminder to Harper that, whether she stays or leaves home, women cannot be left alone.
Harper wants, and has the right, to be alone and she is going to fight for it.
Any time a woman is alone in a horror movie – hell, in any movie – it is evident that she will succumb to danger one way or another. When the strange man from the tunnel appears at Harper’s rental home and threatens to break in, Harper calls the police, who tell her the man must be harmless but arrest him nonetheless. Harper later facetimes her friend Riley (Gayle Rankin), who immediately offers to do the four hour drive and stay with Harper. Harper refuses the company, to which many of us in the theater (myself included) immediately shouted “no!” How can she be alone when she is obviously in danger?
However, I thought about it more and I read Heather O’Neill’s essay on the movie, who pointed out that, “[Harper] has come to be by herself, and she is going to work through the terror of it.” Harper wants, and has the right, to be alone. And she is going to fight for it.
There are other small moments in the movie that I was grateful for. In the beginning, the man who owns the house, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), gives her a tour. In one scene there is a room with a baby grand piano and Geoffrey asked if she plays, to which she responds “no.” The host admits he also doesn’t, and they continue with the rest of the tour. But later on, it turns out that Harper knows how to play rather well.
I loved this little detail and the strength it carries. Personally, when I have admitted to a man that I can do something, more often than not he immediately needs visual proof. In this case, it’s evident that Harper did not have the emotional space or energy to prove to the host that she has the ability to do something he cannot. I can see it in my head: if she said “yes,” he would pester her to play the piano until she finally gives in just to shut him up. He would make some comment, it would be a whole thing that didn’t need to happen. Sometimes it’s just easier to not admit to men when you can do something.
A little goes a long way.
Where Men has its strengths also lie its weaknesses. The entire movie is dipped, and eventually drowns, in visual metaphors. While folk horrors rely heavily on visual metaphors, there needs to be substance to the plot and this is where Men lacks. For example, the consistent focal point is a church tabernacle whose clay artwork consists of a leaf-man on one side, and a woman with a spread-open vagina on the other. Garland goes back to this scene often, holding the viewer’s hand in case we didn’t get the reference that historically, specifically in colonial Christian societies, womanhood is defined by biology.
Another example: unless it is in fear, women historically do not scream a lot in movies. Men scream and shout as loud as they want, whether it is in anger or joy or sorrow, because in a patriarchal world men can and need to be heard. There is a moment in Men when Harper visits a church and, after exploring its artifacts, sits in a pew and screams as loud as she can. She is overcome by grief and mental reruns of her husband falling to his death. And sometimes screaming is just what a person needs to do to let it all out.
I want to see women scream more, and not just because she is running for her life. But then a priest walks up to her and points out how he noticed her scream and how she must be tormented, an immediate shutdown of her emotions. Later in the movie, we see that famous visual trope of Harper dunking her head underwater in a bathtub and screaming. This is so no one, not even in a remote house in a meagerly populated town, can hear. And it is certainly no coincidence that her mouth looks an awful lot like Men’s visual depiction of a human vagina.
Blood blood blood
Let’s not forget the bloody climactic birth scene. It is set off by the visual of apples falling from a tree, an old metaphor for fertility. Soon, all the men in the movie who either terrorized or threatened Harper’s safety give birth to each other in a tumultuous depiction of the female human life cycle. Garland’s imagery is trying very hard to prove that gender is fluid and not simply biological, but that gets lost in the bloody sauce. There is also plenty of phallus symbolism, specifically with a bloody knife, Harper’s only weapon. Symbolism meager at best.
When the movie ends after the seemingly endless birth cycle, Riley finally meets Harper at Cotson and the audience learns Riley is pregnant. At this point of the movie, that little detail is thrown in there for no reason. There is fundamentally no purpose for this detail, which maybe is the whole point. Who knows? I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m putting more thought into it than the movie’s creators.
Men, in short, is an all too real story of the danger women face when being alone. It is about female isolation and men’s interference with that personal space. It is not nuanced in it’s message of what happens when women are alone. Horror movies have been telling us that for as long as they’ve existed.
Don’t get me wrong, Men is well made and well written. The acting is incredible and bring this character-driven story to life. The smallest details and simplicity are where it shines best. But the cumbersome plot sadly outweighs that.
At the end of the day, Men is another movie written by a man trying to understand the female experience as simplistically, binarized, and white as possible. Its goal in not reducing our bodies to our parts fails. And, frankly, I am tired.(2.5 / 5)
*All photos screenshot from the movie’s YouTube trailer*