Alex Garland’s Men was well on its way to being one of the better horror films I’ve seen, but took a detour into a bizarrely graphic, possibly literary-esque symbolism in the final 20-30 minutes that abruptly shifted it into the “it’s a thinker, but I never need to see it again” category.
I could be wrong, but I also don’t think it’s necessarily as confusing as a lot of people seem to believe.
First, the good part: The first two-thirds or so of Men is a fantastic slow burn, up to and including a near-real-time tour of the English country house that the main character, Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley), will be occupying for two weeks. In the early portion of the film, the only harrowing portions are those that relate to flashbacks of the events around Harper’s abusive husband James’ (Paapa Essiedu) suicide—a trauma that weighs on Harper and will ultimately be the focal point of the film.
What the viewer realizes early on is that all of the men in this village look very similar. Of course, they are, in fact, played by the same actor, Rory Kinnear. There’s a frightening incident involving a naked stalker, but, surprisingly, it’s quickly resolved without much fanfare (by horror movie standards). Nobody is injured and police quickly arrive and arrest the trespasser.
At the same time, odd happenings keep piling up, all of which involving Harper’s interaction with village folk who all clearly look like the same person (something she never mentions, which I believe is significant). The story culminates with Harper being chased home and several of the men showing up in her yard—one at a time. The film still maintains some ambiguity at this point, interjecting the possibility that a bird caused a broken window, for example.
That quickly changes as Men enters its final sequence. Throughout the movie, there had been a juxtaposition of scenes from Harper’s final moments with her husband, and scenes from her experience in the country. For most of the film, the implication is that there is some kind of ancient folklore-based horror happening. Perhaps a wood nymph or some similar creature wrecking havoc.
During the confrontation, Harper injures this entity, and what I noted immediately was that the injury to the creature’s arm is very similar to the one John sustained after falling to his death in London. Not only that, but the injury remains, no matter what form the entity takes. Eventually, Harper stabs the entity as it tries to seduce her, but, during her escape, she encounters another form of the entity, which takes her car from her and prevents her from leaving.
The final sequence harkens back to a strange altar in the local church, which depicted such a creature, in (presumably) male form on one side and in female form on the other. During the church scene, Harper is bothered by a rude young boy (again played by Kinnear) and treated rather badly by an initially sympathetic-seeming vicar, who ultimately lays the blame for John’s suicide at Harper’s feet—something Harper had herself questioned. Incidentally, these interactions follow a theme of escalating verbal indignities the men in the film inflict upon Harper.
But the possibly folklore-based images on the altar come to life in the final sequence, when the entity emerges from her car, which he stole while in the form of the landlord she met at the beginning of the film. However, he now has not only the injury to his hand and arm she caused with a knife, but other injuries that perfectly mimic John’s.
The entity is also now fully in the form of some kind of folk magic thing. He’s the naked stalker from earlier in the movie, but covered in a plant-based mask and “crown” that resembles the creature depicted on the altar. Sure enough, the entity quickly grows a belly and very graphically gives birth(!) to another form, which does the same.
The challenge I had with this sequence was that it turned a horror movie based more on tension and terror into one in which gore increased exponentially even as the seeming danger subsides.
Accordingly, by the time the third(!) birth takes place, Harper seems more bored than scared, leaving the yard and returning inside, even as the entity crawls toward her, already in “labor” again. The entity keeps giving birth to its different forms, until, finally, John emerges (feet-first from the mouth of the prior entity!).
They sit down and calmly speak. Harper asks what he wants of her. He says he wants her love. She seems indifferent.
The movie then cuts to the following morning, when Harper’s friend Riley (Gayle Rankin) shows up. Harper has been in frequent video call contact with Riley throughout the film, telling her not to come, but, in the end, she asks her to do so. As Riley emerges from her car in that final scene, we see for the first time that she is pregnant.
Riley sees blood near the entrance to the house, but finds Harper sitting outside, alone and smiling.
Ok, so what the hell just happened?
Here’s my theory: all of this is about inter-generational “wounds” that men carry with them and the pain of which is, ultimately, borne by women. Men may have the scars, but their unhealthy emotional development means that women endure the burden.
Thus, the idea is that John didn’t suddenly turn into an abusive, suicidal adult. Nor (obviously) is Harper at fault in any way. Instead, he was broken ab initio because of trauma that remained unreconciled from generation to generation, or stunted emotional development that remains cyclically unresolved, culminating in his being unable to have a healthy relationship. Yet, Harper is the one who is left to reconcile that trauma.
We also get hints of other burdens borne by women, such as the echo scene, in which “incites” the stalker thanks to Harper merely directing sound in his general direction. This speaks to the notion of women simply existing being used by men to erroneously “justify” obsession.
The vicar (or, if you prefer, the entity in the form of the vicar) articulates this phenomenon more directly just prior to his attempted “seduction” when he claims that Harper (or, more bluntly, Harper’s vagina) calls to him like a siren song, and he is compelled to engage. He also lays the “blame” for his sexual fantasies about Harper at her feet, again shifting the burden of responsibility for his lack of self-control upon her.
Likewise, the little verbal indignities I mentioned earlier serve as reminders that men commonly and thoughtlessly push the burden of emotional availability, responsiveness, and even obedience onto women. Even the early comment by the friendly landlord to remind Harper to be careful about what she flushes is an example of this theme, albeit an innocuous one compared to what comes later.
I think the pregnancy aspect we see at the end is also important, and Harper’s friend being pregnant may also be something that is weighing in the back of Harper’s mind as she works through the process of recovering from this horrible incident in her life foisted upon her by John’s selfish actions. She ponders what her life might have become (i.e. motherhood) had John not fallen down that dark path.
But that leaves two obvious questions:
- Did any of this really happen, or is it all in Harper’s head?
- Who is the man?
I think some of what we see on screen is not literal—or, if you prefer, not “real” within the context of the film’s reality. In other words, Harper may walk into the bar, but everyone there doesn’t literally look like the same person. This is why Harper never comments on it. In a typical horror movie, Harper would immediately start asking if people are related, e.g., and the film would be about explaining what supernatural or scientific explanation accounts for why all of the men look the same. That isn’t this movie.
That’s also why I think much of this is symbolic. Some of what we see is actually happening. Everything involving John in the flashbacks is “real.” Harper really does visit the country. She also really encounters all of these people (although I’m on the fence about how real the naked guy is—I think he’s real the first time we see him, and when he’s arrested, but not when he shows back up in her yard as Will O’ the Wisp or Green Man or whatever the hell he is).
Everything that happens after the bar is more or less just traumatic delusions or hallucinations. There is no man literally giving birth after somehow sprouting a vagina, in other words. And her dead husband doesn’t come back to life to provide some kind of closure.
The fact that Harper appears to lose interest in (or at least stop fearing) the macabre and bizarre events taking place on her lawn is strong evidence that it’s symbolic and part of her mental healing process.
When her friend arrives the next morning, she sees the slightly damaged car and some blood near the entryway (although not nearly as much as came from the Russian nesting doll sequence of births), which I believe indicates that Harper probably crashed her own car and suffered a cut or some other minor injury). Harper’s smile (and solitude) indicates that this frightening process has ended with her finally ready to move on and be at peace with what happened, guilt-free.
Her realization is that disengagement—indifference—is the correct response in the face of unreasonable emotional burden-shifting. That men shift that burden is inherently unfair, and she comes to accept that what her husband did (and other men have done) is to be treated with a refusal to engage, or to allow that burden to fall upon her or other women.
It is only then that she can face Riley, who, as revealed at the end, is pregnant.
If much of what she sees isn’t literally happening, that leaves the question of whose face is it that she sees superimposed over every man in the village / whose face does the (possibly hallucinated) entity have. Why is it that particular face?
My guess: it’s her father’s.
One alternative explanation is that the face is the same because the idea is that it’s meant to represent an everyman (or every man), but this interpretation may clash with the specificity of her ex-husband’s reappearance. That’s why I believe that the common face is her father’s, which represents her personal, formative experience with a male figure. It also connects to the landlord’s comment that his own father told him at just seven years old that he didn’t have the makings of a military man (quite the opposite, in fact). Even in middle-age, his father’s words still sting, and they still guide his actions.
The point being that even the “good” male character carries with him emotional trauma as an adult as a result of his own father not being able to have a healthy relationship with his son, and so on, and so on, and so on.
That, in the end, is what I think this movie is trying to say. If I’m right, I think it did a good job of it. If I’m off-base, then the end is just a confusing mess with all the wrong kinds of ambiguity.
I choose the more charitable reading.
Whatever else you can say about this movie, as is typically the case for Garland, it gives the viewer a lot to think about.