Alex Garland’s Men opens with Harper who wants to get a divorce from James. James threatens to kill himself if she goes through with it. They get into an argument, he hits her, she throws him out and minutes later she sees him fall down through her window fall. Their eyes lock for a moment. He finds his death on a spiky fence. Later she needs a break and finds an AirBnb somewhere in rural, lush green England. A bit of an awkward man shows her around the (perfect) house (apart from the stuttering WIFI). All the countryside men she meets are strange. A man in an abandoned tunnel, a naked man in the woods, later showing up in her garden. A strange vicar, a strange child, strange men in the pub. The entire town seems to consist of men. And all of them seem to be at least a bit off mentally. The countryside’s backwardness?
Men has been compared to Aronofski’s Mother as a philosophical film (“elevated horror”) with more questions than answers and a strong hate or love response from the audience. I didn’t like Mother much, because I found it impossible to follow the film on a non meta level. In a movie I like to have a narrative and a story world to explore and not depend too much on ‘our world’ for meaning. I like to discover metaphorical meaning afterwards, but I want to follow a story first. For me Men had enough of its own world with its own laws to keep me engaged.
Men is often understood as a portrayal of toxic masculinity, but I don’t think that’s what the movie is about. It’s about the feminine side of masculinity, a mixed masculinity. A scary reversal of roles.
Men has been labeled a folk horror and two important folklore figures are seen throughout the entire film: the Green Man and Sheela Na Gig. A masculine and a feminine symbol. But, in both figures, they embody as traits usually associated with the opposite sex. The Green Man is a masculine figure with a face of leaves or having otherwise sprouts or leaves (passively) growing from his face or orifices. The Green Man is the giver of growth, renewal, birth, death, spring; things that are usually associated as essentially feminine. Sheela Na Gig is a figure where a feminine figure actively spreads open a huge (compared to her body) vulva. She is not visibly pregnant or overly adorned with round fertile shapes or beauty. This figure is usually seen on borders on the inside and out (entrances, doors, on the outside of buildings) and is about protection from intruders, a guard, a safety measure of borders. The devouring of the unwanted. Being a protector and guard are usually associated as essentially masculine.
Men will play with what’s masculine and feminine, and what men are.
We meet Harper when she wants a divorce from James. James shows himself as needy and manipulative. If she divorces him, he will kill himself. That’s not the most toxic masculine thing to say. It shows neediness. And passiveness. Passiveness is usually associated with femininity. (For example: “I will fucking kill you if you leave me” would be the more active thing to say.) In women this type of threat is more acceptable, think of the girl in Sweet Smell of Success who sets up a manipulated suicide scene and this ends up being something good for her character.
James wants to haunt Harper with his image frozen in time, again, he wants to make himself inactive, passive eternally, and to be forever an image for her to dwell on, to be with her. A tactic of manipulation, which is more associated with femininity. Lacking strength and lacking the power to handle things on their own women had to resort to other methods.
In the countryside Harper meets one needy man after another. Geoffrey who shows her around the house cannot handle social situations with ease. He is awkward, offers to get her luggage but can’t even do that without showing resentment towards her. He offers later to help her get her intruders because he rents out the house, but he is not the strong man who can save anybody. She runs him over with a car and he lets himself go at her. He cannot be the protector.
The vicar is another interesting character. He observes her in church, he tries to talk to her about her screaming, but he quickly shows his mean streak. He is the definite mean girl. He tries to make her feel guilty about the death of James, he tells her a woman in a marriage has certain duties to fulfill, while his hand grabs her knee. She doesn’t take it and runs away only to run into a boy with a Marilyn Monroe mask (hiding himself behind one of the most iconic female shapes). He takes it off and says he wants to play hide and seek. She doesn’t want to and he starts to openly curse at her.
And then there is the naked man. He doesn’t speak, he just seems to want to get to her. His naked body wonders around her house. He tries to get in. A-morph. Non-rational.
All these men are not behaving the way we tend to think that men are or should be.
All of them have no wifes or partners.
James in the final scenes tells Harper that he just wants to be loved. To be loved is a passive trait, a thing you cannot control. And the men in Men are using tactics to get what they want that are usually associated by women.
Men are all the Same
As soon as you socially categorize yourself as something (old, female, beautiful, conservative, anything) the tendency will arise to experience the out-group as much more homogeneous than the in-group. As soon as you categorize yourself as a woman, the men will seem much more as ‘they are all the same’ and fellow women will seem much more diverse.
In Men all the men are played by the same actor. I have to admit I didn’t notice this, which says more about me than about how it’s filmed; the audience is supposed to notice this. I have a hard time recognizing actors in different roles as it is, apparently even within the same film. A lot of interpretations wonder why Harper doesn’t notice all the men look the same and what the meaning of that is (is she projecting elements of James in all of the men she meets? Is she an unreliable narrator?), but from my experience I completely believe she didn’t notice it.
If she like me didn’t notice this visual clue, in the finale her face is rubbed into the fact that all men are the same. Harper will hurt one and the other will pop up with exactly the same injury. In the end her husband shows up too, with the same wounds she inflicted to the others. She now knows.
Harper is not part of a female all-around-connected-community. She does call with her friend Riley, but Riley only shows up after the action is done. She is a individual person up against this organically interconnected strange countryside men (and her husband James pops up in the end too).
She has shown from the beginning that she is a self sufficient person. During the entire film she keeps her boundaries up, she doesn’t want to stay married, she doesn’t want to see a naked man in her garden, she doesn’t let herself be guilt-ed by a vicar, she doesn’t want to play hide and seek. Geoffrey doesn’t overstep her boundaries too much, but when he attacks her, she attacks back.
She keeps her back straight.
All these men want something from her, culminating into all of them together forcing their way into her home, but she doesn’t bend.
The final scenes are definitely body horror. The men are being portrayed as one being by her cutting the first’s hand open up to the elbow, and the next man having that same cut open hand. Then the most significant scene happens. The naked man, crowned now with leaves, gives birth to another man. The physical limitation of being a man: not being able to give birth, is transgressed.
Here man is woman. Man is giving birth to another man, to another man, to another man. New parts of the male body swell up, to burst open, to give life to another. Giving life to the dead, because lastly James gets born.
All these feminine traits, even the summit of them all, the ability to give life, don’t make James nor any of the other men loved or treasured. It’s disturbing and scary. And if the men use their one typical male trait, their physical power; force, hitting, to get what they want, they definitely won’t get it. James punishes himself after hitting Harper. He knows that after that physical aggression he has no more chance with her. He kills himself. He seems to be more confused than anything else when he sits with Harper after his rebirth. How did this all happen?
Is Harper to blame? She is the active one, picking the apple, and doing what she wants, like Eve in the garden.
Alex Garland first wanted to use pomegranates, a symbol of life, rebirth, women, fertility, but switched to a fruit that has a lot more ethical connotation.
Nature wins though as the tree lets loose all of its apples itself. Harper is not responsible. The figures of the Green Man and the Sheela Na Gig might help the struggling men in Men. Men can be fertile, passive, generous. Woman can be active, protectors, and have their own goals. Nature installed in all humans the ability to love, to be active and passive, but we cannot force anyone to love us. Force in all its feminine and masculine shapes and forms is bound to leave us without the one we want.