Movie Curiosities: Men
“I’ll give you an easy way to know when something is resolved: You don’t wish it never happened.”
–Dr. Lori Beth Bisbey
Alex Garland primarily came up through science fiction, writing such films as 28 Days Later, Sunshine, the criminally underappreciated Dredd, and the even more criminally underappreciated Never Let Me Go, right on through to his phenomenal directorial debut with Ex Machina. Then came Annihilation, a film billed as a sci-fi/actioner with a female-driven cast, though it turned out to be a gut-churning mindfuck of a psychedelic horror film.
Given Garland’s track record with incredible female lead characters in his writing/directing efforts, and given Jessie Buckley’s phenomenal performance in The Lost Daughter, I had confidence that Men would turn out to be a fantastic take on toxic masculinity. I sure as hell wasn’t expecting everything else he packaged that theme with, but in retrospect, it feels like I probably should’ve.
Buckley plays Harper, a woman in a strained marriage with James (Paapa Essiedu). Long story short, James threatens that if Harper ever actually goes through with divorcing him, he’ll kill himself. So Harper goes through with the divorce and James falls out a window. Whether James died on purpose or by accident is left deliberately unclear.
In any case, Harper is obviously going through a lot of conflicting emotions following the (maybe/possible/might-not-be) suicide of the husband she was in the middle of leaving. Thus Harper rents a mansion out in the English countryside where she can unwind in peace and relative luxury while getting James’ affairs in order and coping with her guilty grief. Important to note that the mansion features lush apple trees, there’s easy access to beautiful trails through the nearby forest, the nearest pub is only a brisk walk away, and everyone in the village is a man who looks suspiciously like Rory Kinnear. And we’re off to the races.
Before going any further, it’s perhaps worth elaborating a bit more on a few of the Men that Rory Kinnear plays.
- The owner of the mansion, a nebbish fellow who insists on positioning himself as the master of his domain and the gallant knight protecting Harper
- A hypocritical priest who places the burden on Harper to forgive James for his transgressions in their marriage
- A cop who seems more interested in protecting the rights of a male suspect than the safety of a potential female victim
- A young boy who wants Harper to play with him, and throws a tantrum when he doesn’t get his way
- A strange nude man who stands and stares at Harper
Obviously, all of these characters embody different facets of toxic masculinity and how they manifest throughout society. But what’s truly sinister about these characters is that none of them do anything to directly hurt Harper, or even overtly threaten her. They act creepy, they leer at her, they make her feel gross and unsafe through any number of microaggressions, but they never do anything outright illegal or harmful.
This complicates matters, because it raises the uncomfortable question of how far Harper is justified in acting against her male antagonists. If she just happens to see a nude man twice (assuming she wasn’t mistaken), does that constitute stalking? At what point are the police obligated to step in? At what point is violent self-defense justified, and what microaggressions (if any) qualify as a threat to safety?
To be entirely clear, none of this is intended to justify the Men in any way. Harper is always explicitly coded as the sympathetic Final Girl, while the Men (most especially the Nude Man) are coded as misguided at best and outright monstrous at worst.
Still, that degree of ambiguity helps to illustrate the seductive and manipulative nature of toxic masculinity. How frightfully easy and comforting it is to shift the focus onto how the men are hurt and tempted, putting the blame and burden onto the women who hurt them. How the boy only wanted to play “hide and seek” and Harper was being mean for declining such an innocent request. How maybe her husband would still be alive if she had given him a chance to make amends. How maybe if she wasn’t so beautiful or weak or dressed in such a way, she might not be hurt so badly.
If any of the above was overly triggering, I apologize. If you’re at all sane and rational, you likely felt your skin crawl just reading the above sentences. That’s exactly the feeling that Garland has parlayed into creepy psychological horror, which is the absolute genius of the film.
This is a film that can only really be described in emotions. It wasn’t designed to make any kind of literal sense, and it’s not easy to describe in words. Indeed, this film was built from the ground up to operate on a more primal and visceral level, more about emotions than intellect.
The film is notable for its recurring motifs of the Green Man and the sheela-na-gig, a pair of Pagan symbols seen all throughout Europe. Including a great deal of Christian churches, funny enough. This is a pairing of fertility symbols, one male and one female. The Green Man is so called because his face is covered in foliage, while the sheela-na-gig is primarily notable for the body horror of her vulva being stretched to outsized proportions.
All of that sums up the movie pretty well.
The film makes extensive use of natural imagery, most especially in how the forest exteriors made to look a deep, lush, lively green. Compare that to the interiors of Harper’s apartment and the rental manor, both of which are drenched in dark, carnal reds. We’ve also got the apple trees that Harper is perfectly free to partake of, a neat inversion of the potential Eden imagery. (I might add that every single apple seen in the movie is green on one half and red on the other.)
Combine all of that with the overall feeling of intangible dread discussed earlier: The feeling that even if there isn’t an immediately obvious threat, some intangible thing is terribly wrong and there’s a compulsive need to run. Oh, and let’s not forget every man in this movie looks like the exact same guy and Harper doesn’t think to question that until the third act.
All of this adds up to a film that’s impeccably dreamlike. I don’t use that word lightly and I know it’s too easily used as a cop out, but so much of this movie really does have that feeling of immersive weightlessness, like there’s some method to the madness but the logic is somewhere just out of reach.
Which brings me to the ending. Folks, the ending damn near lost me, and I expect it will lose a great deal of the audience as well. It certainly doesn’t help that based on what I’ve read from the filmmakers, the ending was deliberately made to be an inkblot without any kind of definitive meaning. The filmmakers simply threw all this bizarre shit at the screen and left us to do the work of figuring it out, and I don’t appreciate that.
However, one thing I will say about the ending is that it subverts the trope of the Final Girl. In any other movie, our protagonist would kill the monster and everyone would live happily ever after (at least until the sequel), but that’s not this movie. This is a movie about toxic masculinity, something so much more pervasive than any one person. Moreover, considering that so much of toxic masculinity is built to thrive on violence, it can never be defeated purely through physical conflict.
Toxic masculinity takes many forms, shifting and mutating through the ages. It’s a product of trauma and insecurity handed down through generations. Which means that it can only ever truly be extinguished by accepting and healing the pain in ourselves and each other.
Or maybe the ending is full of shit. It’s hard to tell.
Moving onto the cast, this is of course a showcase for Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear. This whole batshit premise rested entirely on their shoulders, so it’s lucky the both of them have more than enough range to make their wildly multifaceted performances work. Moreover, Kinnear brings the nuance that powers the film’s statements on toxic masculinity, and Buckley’s emotive performance is a huge part of what makes the film’s dreamlike immersion so powerful.
(Side note: Reportedly, Buckley and Kinnear were given some leeway with regards to tweaking the script and improvising dialogue. Smart move, Alex.)
Still, due credit must be given to PaaPa Essiedu, as James and his death are the fulcrum of the film in many ways. Essiedu effectively plays the character as a tragic enigma, a man tortured by his own deep-seated flaws. Remarkably done.
Men is a tough one to gauge. It’s certainly an inventive and superbly-made film, but it’s a weird one that exists on its own terms. The whole picture is so stubbornly open-ended that two different people could watch this and come away with two completely different experiences. What we’ve got here is a cinematic inkblot, a mirror held up to the audience, such that how we interpret the film almost says more about the viewer than the film itself. While I can respect a movie that accomplishes such a feat, that makes recommending it a dicey prospect.
Ultimately, I think the best approach is to take the film’s own methodology and apply it for yourself. After all, this is one of those maddening open-ended films such that the audience can only be right no matter what your interpretation. So if you’ve read this far and you’ve seen the trailers and you think this movie is for you, then you’re right. If you think this movie isn’t for you, then you’re right.
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