Though he has only directed three feature films, Alex Garland has already had one hell of a career. Garland erupted onto the scene in 2015 with Ex Machina, an allegory on artificial intelligence. The film stars Alicia Vikander as a state-of-the-art, self-aware humanoid A.I. who seeks to evolve beyond her captivity. Garland expertly crafted a tale of false intimacy, leaving the viewer vulnerable to the madness that unfolds. While smart as a whip, Ex Machina is a well-polished film that audiences find engaging and comprehensible.
His second film, Annihilation, stars Natalie Portman as Lena, a biologist who encounters a foreboding and enigmatic anomaly on a secret mission. While the reviews for Annihilation were a little more divisive than those for Ex Machina, most critics felt absorbed in the cerebral filmmaking style Garland had brought to the screen. It’s one of those films that, like the phenomenon in the film, gets under your skin and grows into you over the course of time. It was less crowd-friendly, however, than his previous film. The Rotten Tomatoes audience score dipped 20 points between the two (86% and 66%, respectively).
While Ex Machina focused on Humanity/Consciousness, Annihilation’s themes are more grounded in Creation/Self-destruction. What both had in common was a discernable and ambitious exploration of text and story, a strong female lead, and the message of what comes when you mess with nature. While Garland’s films are challenging, they are visionary tales that both unhinge and astound. His are the kind of movies that are designed for the thinking audience: complex and stimulating subject matter that is often hard to pull off, as each layer is dissected and mulled over by viewers trying to find deeper meaning and purpose.
In his third film, Men, Garland shifts his gaze to the subjects of toxic masculinity and misogyny. Like his previous two films, Men is wholly original, thought-provoking, and will certainly be divisive amongst audiences. Garland continues to build structure methodically, pacing the film gradually, building up a slow burn before blowing the lid off with a simmering finale.
On the surface, Men is a study in mourning and bereavement. Harper (Jessie Buckley) has found refuge from the recent tragedies in her life by venturing to an idyllic English countryside manor. We experience the film from Harper’s point of view, as Garland once again centers his story on a female principal character. We experience her grief like Lena’s in Annihilation – Garland sprinkles in flashbacks to help bridge the past to the present. She has run off to handle her despair in the best way she sees fit. Harper is tormented by the moments of that dreadful day she reflects on, which in turn makes her an “easy target” to the men that populate this little hamlet. There is something not quite right about her surroundings, as each man happens to have an eerily familiar appearance (all played by the very versatile Rory Kinnear). She sees the same face on the landlord of the property she has rented, the clergyman, the police officer, the bartender, a troubled youth, and a terrifying nude stalker that seems to follow her every step. And with each character, the men tend to excuse the actions of the previous man, and we begin to see there is much more to the surface than just a film about loss and grief.
Maya Salam is a New York Times gender reporter who writes the In Her Words newsletter, with the Gender Initiative. About toxic masculinity, Salam wrote “that researchers have defined it, in part, as a set of behaviors and beliefs that include:
- Suppressing emotions or masking distress
- Maintaining an appearance of hardness
- Violence as an indicator of power (think: “tough-guy” behavior)”
She summarizes by saying that “toxic masculinity is what can come of teaching boys that they can’t express emotion openly; that they have to be “tough all the time”; that anything other than that makes them “feminine” or weak.”
If toxic masculinity is the result of the standards that have been set upon men over centuries, then what is the impact of that conditioning as it pertains to others – most notably, women?
We see that question answered in a variety of ways throughout the film. Whether exonerating a young boy’s rude behavior as just being a “troubled youth,” dismissing Harper’s concerns about the strange, naked man who follows her onto the rental property, or shifting the blame of Harper’s late husband’s fate onto her, we see the impact of toxic masculinity in the all-too-familiar scenarios Harper continues to experience.
Men is a spellbinding chiller, brimming with visceral terror and suspense. It reveals itself slowly and requires time to process and analyze what unfolds before us. Jessie Buckley gives a strong, fiercely compelling presence, while Rory Kinnear is deliciously unsettling and prickly. There is a lot here, thematically, but it never feels outsized.
And there will certainly be a variety of takes on what Garland is trying to say. Are we meant to ask ourselves: is this all in her head? And by questioning her experiences – her perspective – are the excuses we make for the men by questioning her mental state related to the circumstances that led to a need for the #MeToo movement in reality?
From my seat, it seems that Garland is challenging the “not every man” mantra that often comes out in defense when the subject of toxic masculinity is discussed. By having the same actor play literally every man (outside of her husband), it seems the point is being made that we all have a hand in this behavior. Even if we are not the one delivering the impact, we are not an ally against this behavior if we are not standing up in support of our mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, and friends. What we permit, we promote. The title of the film isn’t “Some Men,” after all.
While I can’t say for certain what Garland’s intent was, I can share my perspective, and how I connected to the film. That’s the message I received, though I’d be curious to hear more from others. Men is jolting and weighty, and some contemplation and self-reflection might be needed after taking this one in. Perhaps a conversation or two with folks who share a different perspective. Maybe that is exactly what Garland hoped for.