Patriarchy Then and Now—with a Twist: The Postmodern Horror of Alex Garland’s Men

by M. Keith Booker and Isra Daraiseh

Alex Garland’s Men (2022) is one of the most talked about films of recent years, partly because of one particular seven-minute sequence and partly because the whole film poses so many interpretive puzzles for viewers and critics to attempt to solve. The film is strongly centered on its principal character, Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley), a young women who has recently suffered a terrible trauma. In an attempt to regain her bearings, she retreats from her home in London to try to find some peace and tranquility by renting a lavish manor house in an English country village. This move initiates a confrontation between modernity and tradition that is crucial to the film’s commentary on patriarchy. Meanwhile, what happens to Harper in the countryside provides the stuff of the film, but precisely what that stuff is remains a matter for considerable conjecture. Men is a strongly postmodern work of art that carefully defeats any final and definitive interpretation, though it is constructed in such a way that this interpretive uncertainty actually becomes a thematic part of the film, mirroring the uncertain state of Harper’s traumatized mind.

The Interpretive Instability of Men

Like many horror films, Men features a number of seemingly impossible events, leaving us to wonder exactly what we are to make of them. One strategy would be to read the events in an essentially allegorical manner. Realizing that what we are seeing on the screen is not literally possible, we just suspend our disbelief, go with the flow, and then try to figure out what the events we are seeing are supposed to mean in terms of the real world. This strategy, of course, is common in horror films, reflecting the decades-old insight of Robin Wood that horror films in general provide a mechanism for dealing with the repressed anxieties brought about by life under “patriarchal capitalism” (Wood 2003, 63–65). According to Wood, the concept of repression is closely linked to the concept of “the Other,” which “represents that which bourgeois ideology cannot recognize or accept but must deal with” (65). In the case of Men, the most obvious “Other” for Harper is, well, men, or at least men with toxic and nagging patriarchal attitudes toward women. However, in this complex film, there is also another sort of anxiety layered on this primary one, which emanates from the realm of folk horror. Harper is a very modern woman and traveling into the countryside might seem a potential trip to an idyllic past, but there is also a nagging suspicion that the primitive locals in the country might be dangerous.

Alternatively, we can opt to go for the interpretation that the impossible events we see in the film are being filtered through the consciousness of Harper, whose perceptions of reality are distorted by the trauma she has experienced so recently. In light of what we see in the film far (especially in that crazy last half hour), the first of these two interpretive strategies suggests that perhaps all (or at least most) men are pretty much alike, in the sense that they have all been pushed by the patriarchal system in which we all live into similar fundamental attitudes and patterns of conduct. Meanwhile, the second interpretive strategy would suggest that, based on her experiences and with good reason, Harper has concluded that all men are basically alike—to the point that she hallucinates them all even looking alike, from a nine-year-old boy to a white-haired vicar.

Men appears to begin as a standard work of psychological drama. Still recovering emotionally from the suicide death of her husband James (Paapa Essiedu), Harper retreats to the English countryside, driving from London to the village of Cotson, in Herefordshire, thus geographically traversing most of England. She seemingly traverses the history of modern England as well, arriving at the country house where she is to stay, hoping that the peaceful atmosphere there will help her to recover from the trauma and grief of her husband’s suicide—exacerbated by the fact that she has not been entirely successful in sloughing off James’s attempts to make her feel responsible for his decision to kill himself. Geoffrey, her jovial and seemingly harmless landlord, informs Harperr when she arrives that parts of the house are almost 500 years old, perhaps predating Shakespeare. The house thus dates back to the origins of modern Britain, so that staying there is like a trip back in time. Geoffrey, the first of the local men encountered by Harper (all of whom will be played by Rory Kinnear), is “very, very country” Harper tells her friend Riley (Gayle Rankin) in a Facetime call soon after her arrival, suggesting Harper’s clear sense that “country” people are different from herself and her accustomed circle.

This trip back in time is filled with cultural memories and it is clear that Harper arrives at Cotson Manor with very specific expectations, partly conditioned by those memories. Given that the film itself specifically evokes Shakespeare, it seems justified to turn to Shakespeare, who wrote some of the best-known descriptions of the beauties of England, perhaps the most familiar of which occurs in the famous “this earth, this realm, this England” speech delivered by John of Gaunt in Act II, Scene 1, of Richard II. At first glance, this speech seems to provide a perfect description of what Harper hopes to find in rural England. However, things are not always what they appear to be in this film. We should remember that these lines are spoken by John (uncle of King Richard II) as he lies dying in the play—and that his full speech is a sort of eulogy for an England he also believes to be dying. Thus, Shakespeare, in a play written around 1595, looks back to a man who died in 1399 and was already at that time bemoaning the lost good old days of England. Nostalgia, we are thus reminded, has been around for a long time and is very much a part of the English national identity.

We get a nice capsule summary of what Harper had hoped to find in the countryside in an early scene, roughly half an hour in, in which she plays Chopin’s Nocturne in C Sharp Minor (No. 20) on the house’s baby grand piano. This extremely peaceful and soothing music is then accompanied by a montage of idyllic shots of the countryside that presumably lies around the house, beginning with the leafy limbs of the impressive apple tree out front and including suggestions waving fields of peaceful bluebells. All of the images suggest the kind of tranquility that Harper is seeking. They also suggest the fertility of nature as well as the fertility of Harper’s imagination, given that these images emanate from there rather than from actual observation. Then Harper hits a wrong note, mutters “Fuck!” and the sequence of peaceful images comes to a screeching halt.

The abrupt end to this sequence serves as a reminder that Harper is not likely to find the peace she seeks in this setting. In fact, by this time, Men has already provided a number of generic clues to let us know that we are watching a horror film and to build a horror film atmosphere. For example, almost immediately after arriving in Cotson, Harper goes for a walk in the scenic surrounding woods, coming upon an old railroad tunnel, which leads to another hint of horror in the film. Harper sings several notes in the tunnel, enjoying the echo, but then appears to see a man at the end of the tunnel, though the view is not terribly clear. He appears to get up and move toward her, causing her to flee in terror. In the midst of her flight, she comes upon a derelict structure, which she begins to photograph; she then realizes that a naked man is standing in front of the building. Many reviewers have interpreted this man as the one from the tunnel, but a close look shows that the tunnel man had been fully clad. He never shows up again and was possibly imagined by Harper. The naked man, though, shows up when Harper later scans her photographs of the building and will later be arrested by police when he comes to Cotson Manor, so we can be reasonably sure that he actually exists in the world of the film.

Harper returns to the house and, the next day, attempts to regain her composure in that piano scene. After the scene ends, however, we see her remove a large kitchen knife from its rack in order to slice a grapefruit in half. It’s a red grapefruit, so cutting through it is suggestive of cutting through flesh, adding an extra bit of suggestiveness to this slicing. Meanwhile, the camera lingers just enough on the knife to lend it an air of significance and to suggest that this knife might be important in the course of the film. It is, after all, very much the same sort of knife that often does mischief in horror films, perhaps most famously when Norman/Mrs. Bates wields just such a knife in the famous shower scene of Psycho (1960). And this ominous note is immediately increased when the naked stalker shows up (and is subsequently arrested) at Cotson Manor.

The ominous note of this knife scene, followed by the arrival of the stalker, contrasts sharply with the peace and beauty of the preceding piano scene in a way that is typical of the texture of this film, which contains a number of such striking disjunctions. The resultant disjointed atmosphere subtly creates uneasiness in the audience that enhances the impact of Men as a horror film. More importantly, though, it reflects the disjointed state of Harper’s traumatized consciousness. For example, from the looks of the trees we see around the house and on Harper’s drive to it, the time seems to be autumn, perhaps even late autumn. Yet the bluebells that we see in abundance in the film actually bloom (like most wildflowers) in the spring. Similarly, the lush greenery that we see in Harper’s (imagined) views of the area around Cotson Manor seems more characteristic of spring than of late fall. The suggestion here would seem to be that much of what we see in the film cannot necessarily be trusted—mostly because it is so thoroughly filtered through the perceptions and imagination of Harper, who thus functions in the film as a sort of unreliable narrator, but also because Garland plays games with the audience as well.

One of the first hints of horror that we see in Men occurs when (about eleven minutes in) Harper first calls Riley on Facetime via her iPhone, but the call suddenly breaks up and Harper suddenly sees a fragmented, distorted, screaming male face (perhaps that of James) on her phone. There are several things to note about this scene, the first of which is that the face on the phone does seem the stuff of horror, even though calls do break up and even though Harper’s interpretation of what she is seeing can be explained in a straightforward way as a result of the trauma she has experienced via James’ suicide. This moment thus plants a seed that something truly horrifying might be on the way. Meanwhile, that we might be seeing the screen from the perspective of Harper also reminds us of how strongly she is situated as the point-of-view character in this film. Throughout Men, most (but not all) of what we see is filtered through the consciousness of Harper, and this moment with the phone perhaps provides a clue that her perceptions might be distorted by her own fragile psychological condition.The fact that Harper’s perceptions are unreliable complicates our interpretation of what we see on the screen considerably, but Garland makes the rhetoric of the film even more complex by sometimes playing with the perspective of the audience apart from Harper. We sometimes see (and know) things that Harper does not, which adds a sort of dramatic irony that provides an extra layer of complexity to our interpretation of the film.

The Mythic Resonances of Men

Men is filled with mythic resonances that add a sense that it is addressing fundamental issues. When Harper first arrives at Cotson Manor, she sees a stately apple tree standing just outside, heavy with apples, again suggesting that it is autumn. She then picks and begins to eat an apple—in a movement the Edenic resonances of which are quite clear. But then, if these resonances were not clear enough, Geoffrey later sees that she has been eating the apple and pretends to be appalled; he tells her that these apples must not be eaten and that they are “forbidden fruit.” When Harper begins to mumble an apology, he smiles and admits that he was merely joking. He invites her to eat all the apples she wants because otherwise they will simply rot and attract wasps. In itself, the moment does not seem particularly significant; however, in light of later developments, the scene seems perfectly to encapsulate a major motif in the film, in which a seemingly beautiful and idyllic surface can conceal quite a sting.

The mythic resonances of this “forbidden fruit” begin a constellation of mythic images that significantly contribute to the overall meaning and feel of the film, even if (as with most things about this film) their actual meaning is not necessarily clear. Most of these mythic images are Christian, perhaps the most important of which involves the suicide of James, who throws himself from an upper storey window and violently hits the pavement below, his ankle broken and his hand pierced by a spike on a metal fence, very much in the place where the iron nails were supposedly driven through the hands of the crucified Christ. In addition, the dead James is left sprawling on the fence, his arms spread wide, in a posture that cannot help but evoke the image of Christ crucified.

This Christ imagery is not gratuitous. Via flashbacks occurring in the memory of Harper, we also see much of the leadup to James’ suicide, making it clear that James attempted to manipulate Harper into abandoning her plans to divorce him by threatening to kill himself if she proceeded. He suggests that it will be as if she killed him herself, a characterization that she refuses to accept, saying that his death is the last thing she wants. James responds, “It’s not the last thing, because you wanna divorce me … more than you wanna keep me alive! How is my life worth so little to you?” Frustrated by his solipsism, Harper screams, “Because I have a life, too! I have a fucking life!” James’ suggestion that he simply has no choice but has to die because of Harper makes his death a sacrificial one somewhat in the mode of Christ, who supposedly had to die because of the sins of ordinary humans. By extension, this parallel then suggests that Christianity might be a key purveyor of the kind of patriarchal ideology that has driven Harper to her current state.

Later in the film, meanwhile, the local vicar quotes William Butler Yeats’s 1924 poem “Leda and the Swan,” which is based on a story from Greek mythology that goes back even further than Christianity. Importantly, the poem is about the rape of the woman Leda by the god Zeus, who has taken the form of a swan. The poem itself, though, also has apocalyptic resonances, in keeping with Yeats’s notion, most famously expressed in “The Second Coming” (1920), that an era of history was coming to an end, with a new one about to begin. In particular, the rape of Leda results in her impregnation and in the subsequent birth of Helen of Troy, leading to the epoch-changing events of the Trojan War. Yeats’s expectations are colored by his somewhat problematic interest in Theosophy and other questionable forms of spiritualism, and he is vague about the nature of this coming transformation. However, it is clear, given Yeats’s general anticolonialist stance, that there is a political dimension to the coming transformation of the world that will likely include the end of British colonial rule in his native Ireland[1].

The Folk Horror of Men (or Not)

Partly because of all these mythic resonances, most reviewers seemed to have identified Men as a work of folk horror, often to the film’s detriment. One of the more negative (and sarcastic) reviews of Men, by novelist Jeff VanderMeer (on whose book Garland’s 2017 film Annihilation was based), starts from the premise that Men is a work of folk horror—and a bad one at that. In particular, VanderMeer notes the film’s many folk horror cues (such as the Green Man carving that Harper finds in the local church) but believes that they are not used effectively. According to him, “these nods are so cursory or cliched that Men feels more in conversation with horror films generally than with the classics of British folk horror, which derive a sense of dread from the eccentricities of people who adhere to rituals-gone-wrong (or oh so right)” (VanderMeer 2022).[2]

VanderMeer might have a point if Men were truly a work of folk horror and not the complex postmodern game that it is. In point of fact, the nods to folk horror in the film are mostly red herrings that tempt us (wrongly) to interpret the film as folk horror. In addition, these hints of folk horror provide reasons for Harper to be alarmed, exacerbating her already fragile emotional state and adding to her increasing paranoia. After all, since the British folk horror explosion of the 1970s, the conventions of folk horror have become quite well known, and Harper would presumably know them as well: modern person travels to a remote area that is disengaged from the modern world, encounters pre-modern locals who are practice ancient religious rites, bad things ensue (largely because of the drastic difference in the cultural values of the modern visitor and the primitive-leaning locals). Given all that has happened in the film, it makes perfect sense that Harper would be alarmed when she comes upon the seemingly ancient carving of the Green Man in the village church in Cotson. In Men, however, Cotson isn’t really all that remote: it’s supposedly just off the M4 motorway and has all the modern conveniences (including modern police who are just a 999 call away[3]), even if television and cellphone reception might be less than ideal[4]. Cotson Manor even has wi-fi. In addition to staying reasonably well in touch with her friend Riley by cellphone, we see Harper making a call back to her office in London, employing an iPhone and Apple Air Pods, to report her analysis of some business data via the Apple laptop computer that sits atop the table in front of her. We’ll even see that she brushes her teeth with an electric toothbrush while in Cotson. Harper is a modern woman who is a bit out of her element in this rustic setting, as one might expect from folk horror, but she has not really left the modern world, which has already touched everywhere in England, leaving no truly premodern refuges.

The locals in Cotson might seem a bit “country,” as Harper somewhat superciliously puts it, but they do not seem to have any organized religious rites other than Christian ones (and there is no evidence in the film that they practice anything other than a purely conventional Anglicanism). Thematically, the hints of folk horror in Men serve to make us expect that Cotson is fundamentally different from London, which makes it all the more powerful when the film ultimately demonstrates that the power of the patriarchy transcends whatever other differences there might be between the giant city and the tiny village, so that, in this sense at least, the two cultures are very much the same. Turning to the past to escape patriarchy is a doomed enterprise, both because patriarchy itself is strongly rooted in the past and because, in our postmodern world, it is very difficult to find any place that has not already been transformed by modernity.

The Green Man carving Harper sees appears on the front of the baptismal font at the front of the church. The Green Man is a relatively positive pagan nature symbol, linked to fertility and rebirth (as in the coming of spring), representations of which can be found in much of Europe, dating back to the early medieval period. However, given Harper’s experiences and state of mind, anything associated with men is potentially alarming, and she does seem alarmed by this carving. Interestingly, though, the back of the font bears a carving of a female symbol, the Sheela na gig, which is somewhat more enigmatic than is the Green Man. Again of ancient pagan origin and widely dispersed throughout Europe (though most common in Ireland), the Sheela na gig has been interpreted both as a symbol of feminine power and as a symbol of feminine threat. Meanwhile, it might seem incongruous to find these pagan symbols in a Christian church, but both of these images can, in fact, be found in churches all over Europe. Perhaps the images are displayed in an unusually prominent position in this church, but the real point is that they are not really as shocking as they appear to be—to Harper, to audiences, and to most reviewers of the film. They clearly suggest to us that we are watching a folk horror film (or to Harper that she is in a folk horror film), but Men is more properly considered a work of psychological horror in which folk horror images add to the psychological pressure on the protagonist but do not foreshadow the coming of sinister folk magic.

The grotesque display of female genitalia on the Sheela na gig seems a bit sinister in the context of the film, contributing to the air of menace that gradually grows throughout the film and foreshadowing that late seven-minute sequence. Crucially, though, Harper does not see the Sheela na gig, which remains hidden from her view, so it has no impact on her psychological state. As a result, the Sheela na gig plays no further direct role in the action of film. The Green Man, however, plays quite a prominent role, and the fact that Harper seems disturbed by it lends credence to the notion that the later appearance of the Green Man (into which the naked stalker ultimately seems to transform himself) is almost certainly a figment of Harper’s imagination, not to be taken as actually occurring in the world of the film.

As Harper sits in the church, she flashes back to the aftermath of the moment when she was punched by James. In the flashback, she then furiously throws him out, leading to his immediate suicide. The memory calls her to break out in wailing, attracting the attention of the vicar, though he doesn’t approach her at this time. When she walks back outside, she encounters Samuel sitting on stone steps in a mask of a blond woman (perhaps Marilyn Monroe). The vicar approaches as Harper declines Samuel’s offer to play hide-and-seek. Sent on his way by the vicar, Samuel tells the vicar to fuck off and calls Harper a stupid bitch.

Harper then sits with the vicar and tells him the story of her breakup with James, a large processional cross is seen in the background, as if ready to be borne. As she tells the story, she suggests that James might have slipped trying to climb down to the balcony to get back in their apartment, though she doesn’t really seem to believe that explanation. She says she is haunted by the belief that he saw her on his way down. “I see,” says the vicar. He puts his hand on her knee and says he knows she must feel an awful sense of guilt. “You must wonder why you drove him to it,” he says, adding later, “Men do strike women sometimes. It’s not nice, but it’s not a capital offense.” He suggests that she should have given James a chance to apologize. She angrily tells him to fuck off and stalks away, shocked at his sexist suggestions, which set up the later scene in which the vicar appears in an even more sinister light as a gross sexual harasser and potential rapist, while also making available the interpretation that the vicar’s later appearance is merely Harper’s fantasy as she unravels, triggered by this earlier shocking actual encounter.

Patriarchy and the Men of Men

The central conceit that drives Men does not become obvious until Harper encounters the boy Samuel outside that church, having already been unnerved by the pagan image of the Green Man. Through the magic of digital editing, the face of Kinnear (whom we have already seen as Geoffrey) is placed on the body of a child (“played” by nine-year-old child actor Zak Rothera-Oxley). Importantly, though, Garland has opted to minimize the digital tinkering with the image, so that both the body and the head remain their actual sizes, which means that Samuel’s head looks unnaturally large. He also still looks roughly the age of Kinnear (a man in his forties), creating an even more unnatural effect. This essentially Brechtian imagery demands our attention and our interpretation, ensuring that we understand the boy to be played by Kinnear and causing us to ask why this is the case. Then the vicar appears and is clearly also played by Kinnear, which probably finally clues in anyone who hadn’t noticed already that the naked stalker had been played by Kinnear as well. By this time we begin to suspect that the message conveyed by this contrivance is that all men are alike—or, as one reviewer put it, all men are evil (Schindel 2022).

It turns out to be a bit more complicated than that, but this theme of the interchangeability of all men is further reinforced soon afterward when Harper, needing a drink after her encounter with the outrageously sexist vicar, staggers into the local pub, where she finds Geoffrey having a pint while working a crossword puzzle. She also encounters the barkeeper, another townsman, and the policeman who had been involved in the earlier arrest of the naked stalker. All of these men are, of course, played by Kinnear. Meanwhile, Harper learns from the policeman the delightful news that the stalker, concluded to be harmless, has been released. Harper, of course, is horrified, while the men all seem unconcerned, if not downright amused, while Geoffrey tosses in the bonus comment that the stalker was probably a “gyppo”—a more racist version of the already racist term “gypsy.”

This gathering of men, all played by the same actor, drives home the fundamental “gimmick” of the film. Again, this conceit can be read as an allegorical enactment of the fact that virtually all men, at least some extent, are shaped by patriarchy in ugly and damaging ways. It is, however, probably a more efficient recuperation of the events of the film to read this scene in the pub as an indicator that Harper herself has been pushed by the patriarchal attitudes of the men she has encountered thus far to expect all men to exhibit similarly reprehensible behavior. Indeed, almost everything that happens in the film from this point forward is colored by Harper’s trauma, which causes her (with good reason) to expect men to behave badly and to perceive them as meeting her expectations.

Disgusted by the men in the pub, Harper stumbles back to Cotson Manor in the dark, feeling as if something might be following her on the way. We (but not Harper) catch a distant glimpse of what appears to be the stalker standing in the graveyard of the church as she passes by. Back at the house, Harper calls Riley to relate her latest encounters, declaring that she is ready to get in the car and drive home to London. Riley insists on coming to Cotson instead, declaring that, if necessary, she will take the axe she sees behind Harper in the video call and chop the stalker’s dick off. We are thus tipped off that the axe (another iconic horror-movie weapon) might soon become important, as we had been earlier with the kitchen knife. The call keeps cutting out as Harper tries to give Riley directions to the house, so Riley suggests that she just message her. Harper sends her location but gets a response that is another one of the many very odd moments in this film. The reply she receives on her phone, clearly not from Riley, echoes the earlier comment of the boy Samuel: “I ALREADY KNOW WHERE YOU ARE U STUPID BITCH.”

This surprising moment is surely Harper’s hallucination, no doubt tied to the fact that her phone played a key role in her final encounter with James, leading to the all-hell-breaks-loose final half hour of the film when are forced to abandon all hope of a naturalistic interpretation and go with either the purely allegorical interpretation of the film as enacting the consistently patriarchal behavior of men or with the interpretation that what we are seeing is Harper’s trauma-distorted perception of men. Of course, there is no reason why both of these strategies cannot be simultaneously effective. Indeed, one of the secrets to the success of Men is that it can work on multiple levels at once, each one of its multiple possible interpretations actually reinforcing the others rather than contradicting them. Nevertheless, the sheer craziness of the film’s final sequence surely suggests that the trauma-based interpretation is more strongly indicated by the events of the film.xxx

After the strange intrusion into her text messages, Harper undergoes (or imagines that she undergoes) a nonstop barrage of alarming threats. The outside lights start flashing. She looks out and sees the policeman. She goes out to question him. He refuses to reply, then the lights go out. At this point, the apples suddenly all spontaneously fall off the tree, providing another signal that we have left the realm of reality. As another man charges at her, Harper runs back inside and locks the door, grabbing the kitchen knife to which our attention had been called earlier. Someone bangs on the front door. The kitchen window breaks and something seems to come through the window into the kitchen. Then Geoffrey appears and finds an injured crow on the kitchen floor. He wrings its neck to put it out of its misery. Then he prepares to go check the outside. He has not thus far seemed to be the heroic type, but he now announces, “Damsel in distress, I’m just the fellow.” Then he turns to Harper and says, oddly, “You have precisely the qualities of a failed military man,” taking her aback until he explains that his father told him that when he was seven years old. The implication here is clear: patriarchal attitudes are passed down from one generation to the next, with men being forced into pre-determined patterns of behavior, even if it goes against their natures.

Men is a thoroughgoing takedown of patriarchy that includes a critique of the negative impact of patriarchy on men, as well as women. As bell hooks puts it, “The wounded child inside many males is a boy who, when he first spoke his truths, was silenced by paternal sadism, by a patriarchal world that did not want him to claim his true feelings. The wounded child inside many females is a girl who was taught from early childhood on that she must become something other than herself, deny her true feelings, in order to attract and please others” (hooks 81).

Geoffrey goes out to look around, with Harper following behind. The lights keep going out. Harper sees the stalker, now with thorn-like spikes protruding from his skin. He blows a cloud of dandelion seeds at her, echoing the dandelion seeds that we have been seeing throughout the film. Distorted memories of earlier events, including the carvings, flash through Harper’s head as she seems to have some sort of unidentified psychic experience, triggered by the seeds. It’s a classic folk horror moment, reinforcing the idea that Harper’s hallucinations are exacerbated by her own expectations of folk horror—but also that our own perceptions are conditioned by similar expectations. For example, these flashes include things (such as the Sheela na gig and the stalker beginning to decorate his face as the Green Man) that Harper herself did not experience and that were seen only by viewers earlier in the film.

In the midst of these strange visions, Harper drifts back into the house as if in a trance. From this point, many of the scenes in the house are tinted red, like the flashback scenes in Harper’s London apartment, suggesting that the events shown are literally colored by Harper’s trauma. The stalker/Green Man looks through the mail slot on the front door, then slowly sticks his hand inside. Still seemingly in a trance, Harper slowly extends her own hand and touches his. Suddenly, he violently grabs her wrist—except that the hand that grabs her wrist is clearly the hand of a black man, presumably James, again suggesting that what we are seeing is distorted by Harper’s trauma. This quick moment also makes it very clear that the hands we are about to see in this sequence are related to James’ wounded hand. Indeed, Harper stabs the hand with the knife, wounding it in a manner reminiscent of James’ hand that was impaled on that fence. As she breaks free, the hand is slowly withdrawn, splitting open as the knife hangs on the slot.

Meanwhile, Samuel is now shown in the kitchen, having put his mask on the crow (which now seems unaccountably alive), in another moment that seems reminiscent of folk horror but that really just shows us that folk horror is on Harper’s mind, because at this point most of what we see is surely occurring only in Harper’s mind. “You really hurt me,” he says, showing Harper that he now has the same wounded hand as the man at the door, now clearly split all the way up past his wrist. It is less bloody than one might expect and dangles limply, very much like a rubber prosthetic; it again looks very unrealistic, calling attention to its significance. As with the rendering of Samuel’s face, the rendering of this and the succeeding split hands has been fairly crudely done, calling attention to itself in a Brechtian manner.

After another man bursts in with the same split hand, and Harper retreats to the bathroom, she is approached by the vicar, now also bearing that split hand. What follows is a crucial sequence that in many ways encapsulates the overall themes of the film. The vicar, a figure of conventional authority, begins that quotation from “Leda and the Swan,” announcing that he is the swan, which is tantamount to an announcement that he intends to rape Harper. He begins to make obscene statements, asking Harper when she lost her virginity and then suggesting that he can picture it vividly, “legs open, vagina open, mouth open. I have decided that you are an expert in carnality.” In a version of the typical misogynist notion that the sexuality of women gives them inappropriate power over men, he claims she has planted images of her sexual exploits in his mind: “This is your power. This is the control that you exert.”

Now the vicar switches modes, returning to poetry and quoting from a poem entitled “Ulysses and the Siren,” by English Renaissance poet Samuel Daniel, a close contemporary of Shakespeare[5]. This story, of course, is a classic expression of the threat posed to men by feminine sexuality, and the vicar then declares, making clear the misogynist nature of this story, “You are singing to me. Not as Ulysses but as sailor. To dash me to pieces on the rocks of this.” He then grabs at her crotch and continues to make obscene remarks. She puts the knife to his throat. He stands and grips her throat with the split hand. He then moves as if to rape her, but she stabs him, presumably killing him as he falls to the floor.

Harper, now clearly in shock, apparently runs to her car and attempts to drive away, but hits Geoffrey as he stands in the drive. He arises and pointedly calls her MRS. Marlowe. Then he takes the car and tries to run her down, eventually crashing it. She collapses to the ground, sobbing. The stalker approaches, now fully masked as the Green Man. As he attempts to walk toward her, his ankle breaks, likes James’. He drops to the ground, now clearly pregnant. What follows is the film’s most talked about sequence, a spectacular display of body horror that begins as the “Green Man” graphically gives birth to a bloody Samuel, beginning a sequence of such births that culminates when Geoffrey gives birth to James, who emerges with broken ankle and split hand.

This sequence of births again reinforces the notion that patriarchal attitudes are passed down from one generation of men to another, as each generation of potential patriarchs gives birth to the next. James, of course, is the end of the sequence, the entire tradition of patriarchy, complicated by colonialism and racism, having combined to make him the troubled man that he was. This imaginary James staggers to the couch and collapses on it. Harper sits beside him, still holding the axe. He describes his injuries and says, “This is what you did.” She asks him what he wants from her. “Your love,” he says, pleadingly. “Yeah,” she scoffs, out of patience with his needs, and we see nothing else of this scene. Suddenly, pleasant guitar music begins, leading into “Love Song” by Elton John[6]. The film’s title shows on the screen for a moment, and then Riley arrives. She sees the crashed car, then walks rapidly toward the house. The door is open, the walkway to it smeared with blood, though it is not entirely clear that Riley sees the blood, because she doesn’t react to it. To complicate matters further, we get one last fertility image in the film as we see that Riley is in an advanced stage of pregnancy, something that had not been obvious earlier in the film. She looks around and sees Harper sitting on some stone steps outside the house. Harper is lost in thought, looking at a sprig of leaves that she holds in her hand. She looks up, sees Riley, and smiles. She is possibly in shock. She still has blood on her, or at least thinks she does. The film ends enigmatically at this point, leaving us to ponder exactly what to make of what we have just seen. As Desta puts it, Men’s moral and philosophical aims have a choose-your-own-adventure quality to them,” leaving a great deal of room for interpretive choices (Desta 2022).

Both of Garland’s earlier films, Ex Machina (2014) and Annihilation (2018), ended with a vision of a possible radical transformation of the world, with female (though not necessarily human) agents at the center of that transformation. Men is so constructed that no final, comprehensive interpretation is possible: what we have offered in this essay is a series of possible interpretations of various moments and motifs. It should be clear, though, that this film does not depend on definitive interpretations in order to convey its multiple messages, which include the fact that patriarchy exerts a toxic effect on the behavior of men and the experience of women, as well as a commentary on the fact that modernity has thoroughly transformed the Western world (and most of the rest of the world) leaving little room for an escape into a simpler past (which wouldn’t be any better in this sense, anyway). The thorough nature of this transformation, though, makes it all the more striking (as illustrated in this film) that patriarchal attitudes and behaviors, so strongly rooted in the past, have nevertheless survived intact into the modern world. As a result, perhaps an even more radical transformation—such as the possible technological singularity of Ex Machina or the possible alien apocalypse of Annihilation—might be needed to put patriarchy behind us once and for all.

References

Anderson, Kevin B. 2020. Class, Gender, Race and Colonialism: The “Intersectionality” of Marx. Québec: Daraja Press.

Brown, Georgia. 2009. Redefining Elizabethan Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Desta, Yohana. 2022. “Men: Let’s Unpack That Disturbing, Disgusting Ending.” Vanity Fair, 20 May 2022, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2022/05/men-ending-alex-garland. Accessed 7 September 2022.

hooks, bell. 2018. All About Love: New Visions. New York: William Morrow.

Kelly, Eamonn P. 1996. Sheela Na Gigs. Origins And Function. Dublin: Town House and Country House.

Moane, Geraldine. 1999. Gender and Colonialism: A Psychological Analysis of Oppression and Liberation. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Russell, Calum. 2022. “Men Review: Alex Garland’s Intricate Folklore Masterpiece.” Far Out, 5 June 2022, https://faroutmagazine.co.uk/men-review-alex-garlands-intricate-folklore-masterpiece/. Accessed 4 September 2022.

Schindel, Daniel. 2022. “All Men Are Evil, According to This Film.” Hyperallergic,23 May 2022, https://hyperallergic.com/734306/men-horror-movie-alex-garland/. Accessed on 3 September 2022.

VanderMeer, Jeff. 2022. “Men Is a Mess.” Gawker,7 June 2022, https://www.gawker.com/culture/men-is-a-mess. Accessed on 3 September 2022.

Wood, Robin. 2003. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan and Beyond. Revised and expanded edition. New York: Columbia University Press.

Notes

[1] There are, incidentally, a number of resonances of colonialism in this film, adding to the overall suggestion that the British past was hardly a peaceful and idyllic time to be looked back upon with nostalgia. Meanwhile, the often observed structural parallels between patriarchy and colonialism (for two rather different approaches, see Moane 1999 and Anderson 2020) mean that Men’s festures toward colonialism add important resonance to this film. In addition to this Yeats poem, there is the fact that Harper is played by an Irish actor who speaks the part with her natural Irish accent. James, meanwhile, is played by an actor whose family is from Ghana, another former British colony. Also, the Sheela na gig figure that appears in the film is most commonly found in Ireland, but mostly in areas of the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland, while they are seldom found in areas that remained unconquered at that time. On the Sheela na gig, especially in Ireland, see Kelly 1996.

[2] Most reviewers seem to have regarded Men as a work of folk horror. In contrast to VanderMeer, though, Calum Russell regards the film as a folk horror “masterpiece” (Russell 2022).

[3] Importantly, the only seemingly “normal” people Harper encounters while in Cotson are the 999 operator (voiced by Garland regular Sonoya Mizuno) and the policewoman who answers the call (played by Sarah Twomey), suggesting that her perceptions might be affected by her gender-based expectations, especially as the policeman who answers the call seems just like all the other men in Cotson.

[4] Cotson is identified within the film as being located in the county of Herefordshire, which is indeed one of the most rural counties in England. However, the actual filming was done in the neighboring county of Gloucestershire and in the village of Withington (a suburb of Manchester), standing in for Cotson. The M4 motorway, incidentally, does not pass through Herefordshire.

[5] Shakespeare and Daniel mutually influenced one another. Particularly relevant to this rape-themed scene is the fact that Daniel’s long poem The Complaint of Rosamunde is generally acknowledged to have been an important influence on Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece (Brown 2009, 194–95). Rape culture has a long history.

[6] The same song also plays at the beginning of the film, in a version recorded by Lesley Duncan, who wrote the song, a rather conventional pop love song of a type that obscures the gender issues addressed by this film.