8/10 Men is a surprisingly straightforward film about God’s hatred for women. Writer/director Alex Garland is a master of associative imagery and abstract filmmaking, and this is one of those cases where the visuals are the plot, but also individual details of the plot are crucial, so I’m just going to mark this for spoilers and get into it.
Detailed spoilers below.
Cotson, England- Recently widowed Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) takes a holiday in the countryside. In a series of flashbacks, her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu), threatens to kill himself after she says she’s divorcing him, then becomes violent, at which point she throws him out of their London high-rise right on the St Katharine Docks. He pushes his way into the apartment directly upstairs, climbs down onto the balcony and falls off to his death, his eyes locking with Harper’s one last time. Whether he slipped while trying to get back inside or was following through on his threat remains unclear. In a daze, Harper goes downstairs and around back of her building to observe her husband’s ruined body like an ersatz Christ.
Harper takes the vacation they had planned on her own to recover. After being shown around the 500 year-old mansion she’s rented by Geoff (Rory Kinnear), an old-school sexist who goes out of his way to mention her period and repeatedly asks where her husband is, she explores the town, which is jam-packed of other kinds of sexists, all of whom are also played by Kinnear. On her second night, the mansion is besieged by what appears to be a lone man-monster shapeshifting between the various Kinnear-faced men Harper has encountered.
The most obvious thing about Men is the choice to have Kinnear play all of Harper’s attackers, and it serves more to distract from the film’s other points than make one of its own. The payoff is obviously something along the lines of all these misogynists being the same, and it’s a work-intensive way to say something so boring. The picture goes out of its way to separate out Kinnear’s characters, but also makes a big show of them accumulating the same wounds and we eventually get to see how they shift shape into each other in the bloody disgusting climax, so it’s very clear they’re the same creature. Most of them get their own first names, and it drives obnoxious choices in makeup and characterization to help the audience keep up – Kinnear and the entire makeup department do a wonderful job, but they shouldn’t have to work this hard so viewers can tell the difference between characters who are ultimately the same character.
It seems like the project would have been simpler if you just cast more guys and combined them in the other ways the man-monster is combined, though a spring 2021 production during the COVID-19 crisis may have been a factor in going with a limited cast. Additionally, Men seems to abandon the biggest opportunities of all this effort, having a policewoman gaslight Harper instead of her Kinnear-played partner and then having the monster suddenly change into another actor at the end.
Harper, like the audience, seems to be aware that everyone in Cotson is played by Kinnear, but doesn’t think the risk of calling attention to it is worth the reward of whatever explanation she’d get. Men would probably be more interesting as a work if it were focused more on how Harper’s view colors film, the paranoia she must have developed from the abuse she’s still recovering from and consistent London catcalling, but the picture is careful to never call her perspective into question.
There are several clear indicators that the man-monster is God. When we first meet him as Geoff, he presides over the garden from which Harper plucks and apple that he describes as “forbidden fruit.” There’s an obvious association with his sinister priest character as well, and when he attacks Harper as the priest, it’s preceded by a long recitation of a poem about Lena and the Swan, a story from Greek Mythology in which Zeus appears to Lena as a swan and either rapes or seduces her, depending on the telling. This is the moment when Harper asks him directly what he is, the only time she seems interested, and his only reply is, “a swan.”
Men came into theaters hot with a reputation as one of the nastier movies in recent memory, but it isn’t much of a horror film. It’s got the type of explicit content that will give a movie that reputation without really earning it. We see the monster’s penis a few times, and there are several close-ups of a vagina giving birth. It’s also got the gender-bending that the MPAA doesn’t like – the vaginas are all on the man-monster, and there’s a moment when Harper stabs him with a kitchen knife held conspicuously where her penis might be, driving her hips forward and pushing the knife in with her pelvis rather than moving her arm.
Men has few real scares, focusing instead on a disturbing premise and visuals, and Harper’s reaction toward the monster quickly becomes one of irritation rather than fear, but it’s an incredible slasher when it wants to be. Garland twists his two or three cat-and-mouse sequences to unbearable length, what would feel like padding if it weren’t so brilliantly executed. He could clearly make a slasher for the ages sopping with viscera and violence if he felt like it, but he would rather make Men.
Much more violent than anything the man-monster does to Harper’s body is he blames her. Her husband twists himself into a worse knot than he does in his fall asserting that his impending suicide will be her fault, and most versions of the man-monster are blaming her for something as well, usually his own actions. Again it’s the priest who is the most sinister here, as he tells Harper directly that her husband’s death is her fault during the setup and elaborately blames her for his own attraction and the suffering it causes him during the siege.
The man-monster doesn’t want to hurt Harper, he just wants to show her how horny he is. He wants to perform heterosexuality with her, thinking that if he shows her his desire persistently enough she’ll have to perform with him as well. By the end, he becomes what Harper thinks men, at least men like her husband, are, this pathetic thing, covered in his own blood from mostly self-inflicted wounds, crawling relentlessly toward Harper begging for her pity, or at least her attention.
The dynamic at play in Men is ancient. The sexual marketplace is an immortal law of nature, older than the 500-year-old mansion in which Men plays out, older than the millennia-old gods the man-monster is implied to be, and all men are the same and participate in all the same ways. At one moment during the siege, Harper stops and beholds the Orion-Cygnus Arm of the Milky Way, which the film has treated specially to be visible to her naked eye. Indisputably, if we discover there is intelligent life hiding in some nebula 2,000 light-years away, that life will also have men and women and they will also be engaged in this same dance, these same tropes of masculine anguish and desperation that can only be soothed by a feminine touch that heals all wounds.
But none of that is true. The boomer conception of courtship that has been reinforced by mass media for decades has never really been true in practice – it existed in this strange in-between space in history, when women were gaining more and more autonomy, but the mating rituals everyone was familiar with were still based around power imbalances from when women were legally barred from holding money or property or voting. When they were barred from controlling their reproductive system. In the modern era when women have the right to choose, Harper has no reason to engage in the man-monster’s ritual, a highly choreographed exchange of sex for property from a barbaric and frighteningly recent era, just as she has no reason to stay in a marriage that isn’t making her happy anymore.
There’s a lot of guilt inherent in being a male feminist – loving and respecting someone and wanting to stuff your cock into her feel like contradictory emotions, even when they aren’t. That’s what’s so off-putting about Men. It seems like an apology for the cultural truisms James Marlowe and the man-monster play out, but anyone who doesn’t fit within those truisms can tell you they were never really true. There’s no room for queerness or transness in the assumptions that Men operates under, nor is there room for swinging or for women who enjoy, or even freely consent to, sex. There is no excuse for spreading or enduring the anguish of the man-monster’s heteronormativity because there is no reason to participate in it at all. It’s a portrait of how horrifying one model of relationships is, the model that the male characters assert is the only one because they think it benefits them, and that’s all it aspires to be, but it feels incomplete without incorporating something better.
It doesn’t have to be this way.