May 18, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Alex Garland
Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the fictional Village Kotson, England, the horror flick “Men” has a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one black person) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A woman, who is grieving over the death of her estranged husband, rents a home in the English countryside and has a series of disturbing encounters with men.
Culture Audience: “Men” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching horror movies that use abstract and often-gruesome scenes to convey messages about relationships between men and women.
Filled with symbolism intended to make viewers uncomfortable, “Men” has incisive observations about grief, guilt, toxic masculinity and female empowerment—all wrapped up in an atmospheric horror movie. Written and directed by Alex Garland, “Men” is the type of horror film that is best appreciated by people who don’t expect all horror films to follow a certain formula where a “villain” is defeated at the end. In fact, the movie leaves it open to interpretation if there are any “villains” and how much of the story occurs inside the mind of the story’s protagonist.
“Men” (which takes place in England) begins with a striking and disturbing image of protagonist Harper Marlow (played by Jessie Buckley) watching a man die while she’s in her apartment home. Harper is British, in her early 30s, and she works in an unspecified job where she has to deal with data figures. As she looks out her apartment window, she’s shocked to see a man falling. This scene is played in slow-motion, as if it’s some kind of dream. But it’s no dream. It’s a flashback memory that Harper is having.
And the man falling out of the building was Harper’s estranged husband James (played by Paapa Essiedu), who died in this tragic fall. His death happened on the day that Harper told James that she wanted him to move out of their home after they had a brutal argument. Harper had already told James that she was going to divorce him. Some other things happened on that day to explain why Harper has a bloody nose. Whether or not James’ death was an accident or a suicide is discussed in the movie, which makes it clear that James was definitely not murdered.
After this horrifying opening scene for “Men,” Harper is then shown arriving at an English countryside mansion called Kotson Manor, which she is renting for two weeks in a place called Village Kotson. It will be a getaway retreat for her after James’ death. It’s never detailed how long ago that James has died, but it’s implied that his death was fairly recent, because Harper booked the rental under the name Mrs. Harper Marlow, out of habit.
The owner of the house is a middle-aged man named Geoffrey (played by Rory Kinnear), who has nervous energy and is very talkative when he gives Harper a tour of the house. When Geoffrey asks Harper where her husband is, Harper makes a comment that implies that she’s divorced, but she hasn’t changed the “Mrs.” part of her name yet. Harper also tells Geoffrey that she has kept her married surname, but she plans to change that too.
James’ death isn’t the only thing that Harper lies about to Geoffrey. There’s a baby grand piano in the house. James asks Harper if she knows how to play piano. Harper says no. James comments, “Me neither.” However, when Harper is alone in the house much later in the movie, she plays the piano. And she’s clearly a very skilled piano player. It’s the movie’s way of showing how women sometimes hide their talent to make men feel more secure.
“Men” has several religious symbols from Christianity’s Old Testament, including the Garden of Eden and the biblical story of the birth of humankind. The first thing that Harper does when she arrives at the house is eat an apple from the apple tree on the front lawn. Geoffrey jokes to Harper that the apple she’s eating is “forbidden fruit.”
Geoffrey, who is upbeat and friendly, apparently lives alone, since he doesn’t mention anyone else who lives in the house. Harper has a very good first impression of this well-kept estate, which she later describes as a “dream country house.” Geoffrey seems very confident that Harper will take good care of the house before he leaves. But it won’t be the last time that Harper will see Geoffrey.
Harper’s best friend is an opinionated and confident American woman named Riley (played by Gayle Rankin), who is close to Harper’s age and who also lives in England. Riley is a supportive and attentive friend to Harper. Harper and Riley are shown having FaceTime conversations throughout the movie. In one of their conversations, when Riley becomes concerned about Harper’s safety, Riley offers to go to this country estate to give Harper some company, but Harper declines the offer. Later in the story, it becomes clear how this friendship represents the power of female solidarity.
Harper thinks she’s going to have a peaceful and quiet vacation at this home in the English countryside. But soon, strange things start happening. While out for a walk in an open field, Harper uses her phone to take a photo of the lush green scenery. But she’s horrified to see a naked man (also played by Kinnear) in the distance suddenly appear in the photo. The man, who is bald and has a stocky build, is completely nude and just staring at her silently in a creepy manner.
Harper goes back to the house, calls Riley, and shows the photo to Riley. They both have a laugh over this awkward situation. But it won’t be the last time that Harper sees this bald, naked man.
While taking a walk through the woods, Harper come across a tunnel, which has an unusually long echo whenever she makes sounds in the tunnel. Harper is charmed and amused by this echo, but her whimsical moment comes to an abrupt end when she sees a shadowy figure of a man at the end of the tunnel. The man, who is wearing a business suit, appears to be watching her.
And all of a sudden, the man starts running after Harper. She frantically runs away, goes in the house, and locks the front door. Harper looks out the windows and doesn’t see any sign of this stranger. She assumes that the man lost track of her when she ran away in the woods, so she’s fairly certain that he wasn’t able to follow her to the house.
Harper then calls Riley to tell her about this odd experience, but Harper decides to shake it off and give Riley a video tour of the house. As she gives the video tour, unbeknownst to Harper, the naked man is walking around on the house’s front lawn and peering through the house’s front windows. He also sees the apple tree and starts eating one of the apples. Eventually, Harper sees the man, who tries to break into the house. Harper calls the police, and the man is arrested.
The rest of “Men” shows Harper having varying degrees of hostile experiences with some of the men who live in the area. Viewers can easily see that most of these men look like Geoffrey, including a church vicar, the naked man, a cop, a pub owner and two farmhand brothers who are both customers in the pub. But is something supernatural going on in Village Kotson, or is it all an elaborate hallucination from Harper?
There’s also a young male character named Samuel (played by Zak Rothera-Oxley), whom Harper first meets when she goes to a church for some meditative solitude. Behind the church is a cemetery. Samuel is sitting on the church steps, wearing a face mask of a blonde woman, when he asks Harper if she wants to play a game. When Harper politely says no, Samuel calls her a “stupid bitch.” Samuel is also rude to the vicar and tells the vicar to “fuck off” when the vicar tells Samuel to stop bothering Harper.
Are there any women in this village, besides Harper? Yes. After the unnamed naked man is arrested (he is mute, has no identification, and is presumed to be homeless), a female police officer named Freida (played by Sarah Twomey) takes Harper’s statement with empathy and professionalism. The 999 phone dispatcher/police operator (voiced by Sonoya Mizuno), who takes Harper’s call about the intruder, is also a woman, although she is only heard over the phone.
However, the movie is really about the characters played by Buckley and Kinnear, who give compelling and admirable performances. The flashback scenes in “Men” demonstrate that although Harper is on a “getaway” trip, she can’t really get away from her feelings about James’ death and how their impending divorce had an impact on their lives. The movie’s pacing might be a little slow for some viewers, but the last 15 minutes of “Men” are a bold and bizarre knockout.
What does all of this symbolism mean in the story of “Men”? The movie shows in subtle and not-so-subtle ways what it’s like to be a woman in a world where men have most of the power and want to keep it that way. A woman who is independent, intelligent and confident is seen as a “threat” to this dominance. And this male insecurity comes out in various ways, such as trying to make women feel weak and inferior to men.
One of the most telling scenes in the movie is at the church, when the vicar talks to Harper, who confides in him on how her husband James died. At first, the vicar seems compassionate in comforting Harper. But when the vicar finds out how Harper’s husband died, this impromptu counseling session ends on a sour note because of rude and insensitive comments that the vicar makes to Harper, as shown in the “Men” trailer: “You must wonder why you drove him to it … Might it be true that if you had given him a chance to apologize, he’d still be alive?”
Even “nice guy” Geoffrey has his moments of sexist condescension. When he gives the house tour to Harper, he says to her with a smirky grin: “Ladies, watch what you flush.” He adds, “Septic tank,” as if to say that the septic tank can get easily clogged. Geoffrey’s snide comment is a subtle menstruation reference to women and girls being told not to flush sanitary pads down toilets. Geoffrey could have easily told Harper about the septic tank without making it sound like women are more likely than men to clog toilets.
The series of increasingly horrifying encounters that happen in “Men” range from sexist comments to outright violent misogyny. Some of it happens in Harper’s flashbacks too. The movie takes a scathing look at how male egos are intertwined with society’s idea of what outward masculinity should look like. And the movie also shows how men are taught to hide their inner pain and insecurities, which misogynistic men often take out and inflict on women.
“Men” also shows how toxic masculinity breeds more toxic masculinity. This toxic masculinity can morph into many different forms—and it isn’t always violent. It’s shown in conversations between men and women when men talk over and interrupt women, to try to assert male dominance. It’s shown when men dismiss women’s thoughts, feelings, intelligence, skills and worth as less important than men’s.
It’s shown when men are hostile to women who are or could be in leadership positions over men. It’s shown when men excuse, enable or tolerate horrible actions from men, but give harsher judgment to women who do the same horrible things. It’s shown when men are quick to blame women when women are wronged and are the victims. It’s shown when men think they know best on how women should live their lives.
“Men” will frustrate some viewers who won’t understand the symbolism in this richly layered movie. People who have no knowledge about Judeo-Christian religious beliefs might also be confused over what the apple tree means in the story. (Look up the story of Adam and Eve, if you don’t know it.) But for people who get what the messages in “Men” are all about, the main takeaway should be that toxic masculinity is everywhere, and people really can’t escape it. “Men” also sends an impactful message that grief should be honestly confronted (not avoided), and women need to tap into their own strength to overcome the damage of misogyny.
A24 will release “Men” in U.S. cinemas on May 20, 2022.