Written & Directed by Alex Garland
Alex Garland has been a complicated director for me. I can’t say I’ve ever loved his work, but I find it fascinating. Every time he releases a film or, in one instance, made a television series, I am there for it. I don’t think you can argue that Garland is an uninteresting filmmaker though you could say he has a lot of missteps or doesn’t necessarily communicate his ideas clearly. When the first trailer for Men dropped, I knew I would be watching it as soon as possible and that it would be a unique viewing experience as all his work has been. Men has gotten a lot of negative press and seems to be both a critical and box office failure. I knew all these things going into it but ended up loving it more than I have most of Garland’s other work. It is undoubtedly his most esoteric movie, and I understand the adverse reactions entirely.
Harper (Jessie Buckley) arrives at a spacious manor house in the English countryside, where she will spend her weekend. Her late husband, James, is revealed to have committed suicide, and she is still going through a complicated grieving process. The house’s owner Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), is waiting for Harper and takes her on a brief tour of the place before handing over the keys. After a short rest, Harper goes on a walk in the forest, discovers a gravel path, and follows it to a long dark tunnel. She playful shouts and listens to the echo created by the tunnel’s fantastic acoustics. Eventually, a figure pops up on the far end of the structure and responds to her echoes with a disturbing scream. Harper rushes back to the house but feels that something has followed her since. The next day, she explores the village, meets the various men that populate it (all played by Kinnear), and eventually faces the horror she awoke.
I am not going to pretend that I know precisely what Garland was doing in this movie, but I can confidently state I was utterly engrossed in the film and loved it, dubious CGI and all. Garland is an expert at building haunted, surreal moods in his work. The FX mini-series Devs had a similar vibe, unsure if it’s meant to be our world or a strange parallel. Men is also Garland’s least science fiction-y movie; it’s a horror movie in which the supernatural is the primary source of immediate problems. Because Garland doesn’t like to over-explicate in work, it makes sense that audiences might be baffled as to what exactly happens to Harper. The entity she awakens has roots in Celtic mythology but isn’t something familiar to American audiences.
Midway through the film, Harper enters the village church and discovers the altar at the front is adorned with pagan symbols. One of these is the face of the Green Man, and the other is a Sheela na gig. Green Man is connected with ideas of rebirth, particularly in the context of the seasons. He’s typically depicted as a face from which leaves and vines sprout, which is how the entity presents itself to Harper in the film’s final act. Green Man is not just limited to the British Isles, though similar pagan faces have been found in France, Cyprus, and among Roman architecture spread across the globe. Strangely, English religious buildings will incorporate Green Man into designs when typically pagan symbols are purged by colonial Christians.
Green Man’s exact purpose is obscured due to his ancient roots and lack of hard documentation, but we know a lot about the figure. Sheela na gigs are much more mysterious. Instead of a singular figure, they seem to be a type of being. She is always depicted as female and presents her vulva to the viewer. You can find them used as gargoyles in church architecture, and there’s no general consensus about what she represents. Some scholars see her as a figure of female fertility, while others interpret her as a warning against lust. Others think the carvings are meant to ward off evil spirits. It should be no surprise that modern feminism has sought to reinterpret Sheela na gigs as representations of female power. Like Green Man, these images are found across Europe, with the greatest concentration being in Ireland.
I think audiences are pushing back against the profound surreality of Men. The moment the entity awakens in the tunnel, it’s not clear if we are in the realm of the literal or psychological. I don’t think it matters because the story will always be about Harper’s grief and guilt, so what plays out is working her through those things. My personal read is that her shouts did literally awaken a supernatural being which humans have labeled as Green Man, and it is drawn to those conflicting emotions within Harper. We see it as sinister because we’re in Harper’s head and her perspective. By the movie’s end, saying it is an evil figure seems dubious. That rebirth aspect of Green Man comes into play; Harper is experiencing the “seasons” of loss Green Man is trying to create a scenario where she can come to terms with what happened.
There’s an intentional dissonance within the picture, which justifies the less than stellar digital effects. Harper wants to avoid her husband’s suicide, but she must face it. Unfortunately, the men she encounters aren’t letting her do that. They gaslight her, ignore her, and antagonize her. It’s through an entity combining Green Man and Sheela na gig elements that Harper can find peace in the picture’s final moments. I won’t say Garland pulls this off in a way that would satisfy every viewer, but I loved the note the movie ended on. It ended up not being a horror film with a down ending but a story that points towards a hopeful future, a push to find peace on our own terms, and confronting those things that make us uncomfortable.