I don’t doubt that when Alex Garland began work on his latest project, Men, that he suspected it would release at such a relevant time. Civil unrest is at an all-time high for a number of reasons — one of which involves a large percentage of the population daring to ask for basic rights over themselves — really any time since the founding of this great nation could be considered a relevant time. But it’s true, Men was already shaping up to be quite the controversial movie before the general audience got a chance to see it.
Trailers and early reviews described the film as a regular battle of the sexes, a tale as old as time. This time told on a metaphysical, supernatural battlefield, the hero of which is one Harper Marlowe — played by Oscar-nominated actress Jessie Buckley — a recently widowed who relocates after a sudden tragedy. The quaint little countryside village she finds herself in is beautiful.
Peaceful, away from the city, and surrounded by lush, leafy greenery that benefits well from Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy’s gorgeous shots. But as enchanting as Men looks, there is trouble in paradise. It takes the form of the population of the village town, a majority of which are white males, all portrayed by Rory Kinnear with the help of intentionally unsettling CGI effects.
These men share the same face, but all embody traits and mannerisms that Harper soon comes to strike as threatening and damn near harmful to her well-being. The town psychologically haunts Harper, whether it be by stalking her, breaking into her home, or passive-aggressively blaming her for her husband’s passing. It’s really brutal stuff, making the mind wince as bad as the body does when met with the film’s surprisingly graphic horror.
But all Cronenbergs aside, Men joins its A24 alumni in being a horror movie that has a little more bark in its bite. A movie the kids in Scream would call “elevated horror,” which just really means a scary movie that’s a little less shy about its inner purpose. That inner purpose usually being to explore and even educate about the human experience and/or the crumbling foundations of modern society. While other A24 spookfests like Hereditary or X (also released this year) tell their message through specifically placed imagery and the magic of metaphors, Men takes a little less subtle of an approach.
The men in question throughout the film display nasty, but all too familiar traits. Kinnear teeters the line between fantasy and reality and created a horror monster that hits close enough to home to make you cringe. We’ve all experienced the situations Harper finds herself in, heard the kind of dialogue exchanged and just wanted to fade away from secondhand embarrassment. And possibly, we’ve even been in the shoes of the “Man” Kinnear portrays. Hopefully not to the extent it’s taken, but it’s more than likely that more than a handful of people will hear something his multi-bodied character says and think to themselves “Oh, that’s what that sounds like?”
In fact, it’s already happening. When the first trailer for Men dropped, the internet was set aflame (you think by now it’d be fireproof) with responses from every corner. The eye-catching name and subject matter caused a few usual suspects to write the movie off before it even released. The type who refuse to see a movie that dares to question the traditional patriarchy in any way because of how “political” a stance it takes. It’s easy to watch a movie like Men and get caught up in the fact that Kinnear’s character is a villain, instead of wondering why that is. You know, besides the clear demonic influence.
But while some are ready to write this off as an “all men are evil” propaganda piece, there’s a bigger picture here being completely ignored. Projecting yourself onto a character in a movie is just something we all do without even realizing it. The goal of most stories is to put the viewer in the perspective of the characters — blurring that line between them to make the story a little more personal and raise the stakes. While there’s nothing stopping everyone from projecting onto any number of the characters in Men, the film’s particular setup does (whether intentionally or not) encourage the idea that Kinnear is meant to be a reflection of the dudes in attendance. Well, my dudes, good. Keep on projecting.
Now before you finish tracing my address, let me explain. Men is a special movie in that nobody can really seem to agree on what exactly it’s trying to say, how well it’s saying it, and whether that ultimately distracts from the overall horror aspect of the film. Men isn’t your traditional horror movie, true, the “monster” spends more time as regular men than as some kind of creepy, disfigured creature with nasty special effects. This is done in part to make a point, that evil can come in any shape or form. It doesn’t always look evil. Yes, part of that is saying that that evil can come from man, just like anything else. But the bigger point Garland’s horror drama tries to make is that the evil nature of man often goes unchecked.
We are, like most living creatures, blessed with the gift of choice. Depending on who you ask, the level of that choice varies. But that choice means we have the ability to do great good and great evil, both of which can come in many forms, sometimes the same forms. What might seem like an innocent joke could be deeply offensive, and while it’s easy to tell the difference most of the time, sometimes it isn’t. This reckless use of the power of language is what Men peeks at. A nature that is often found within heterosexual males suffering from nigh incurable “male toxicity” syndrome.
It is, in fact, a good thing if you watch Men and see yourself in Kinnear’s monster. Regardless of your gender — which itself is a subject much broader than the film’s admittedly limited view at just two of them — you should be seeing a bit of yourself in our protagonist and antagonist alike. There are strengths and faults in every fictional character, good or bad, and Men doesn’t try to make Harper perfect.
Despite audience and Kinnear projecting the idea of a perfect, brave female protagonist on Harper, that isn’t her position in the film. She’s just trying to enjoy a sense of liberation, freedom from controlling natures that dictated that outcome of her life, only to find herself trapped once more in a situation she feel helpless in. We’ve all been where she’s standing, so it’s easy to project ourselves onto her underdog story. But it’s just as important to acknowledge the bad like we do the good. To note the power our words and actions have over others even if they go against our intentions.
The online outrage for Men was inevitable. But anyone seeing themselves in the monstrous layers of Kinnear’s creature should embrace that, face it, not shun it. The anger or confusion that comes from seeing a movie display the evil of man in a literal way should encourage discussion and change, not further anger. It will likely encourage both.