Director: Alex Garland (UK, USA). Year of Release: 2021
In a very early scene, woman looks out of her obviously very plush flat onto the Thames. Suddenly something interrupts the view. A body plummets from the floor above. Its face seems to turn and stare at her.
We are gradually filled in with the details. Harper’s husband James is very controlling and jealous. When she threatens to leave him, he says he’ll kill himself and assures her that she will be the one to blame. His fall from the flat above was more an act of stalking than an actual suicide attempt, but either way he ends up impaled on the railings below and Harper is left with James’s departing words taunting her.
Harper books herself a manor house in Herefordshire, and heads of down the M4, Lesley Duncan’s “Love Song” playing on the soundtrack. She is welcomed by the owner, Geoffrey, who is, as she later tells her friend, “a certain type”. He wears red trousers, green wellingtons and look as if he’s about to say something sexually inappropriate at any moment. You feel that he’s a character rejected by the League of Gentlemen for being creepy, but not quite creepy enough.
Harper continues to meet slightly creepy men, all played by Rory Kinnear. There’s the naked man who follows her home and tries to beat down her door, the policeman who catches the stalker then releases him, saying “what can you do?“, the vicar who touches Harper’s knee a little too assiduously when he’s simultaneously comforting her and blaming her for her husband’s suicide, and the irritating kid who calls her a slut when she refuses to play hide and seek with him.
We’re onto a high concept here, and – for the first half of the film at least – it generally works. Harper has been traumatized by her abusive relationship, followed by watching her husband die in front of her eyes. The men she comes across do not react to her with equal levels of insensitivity, but each of them demeans her in his own way. One thing that none of them does is leave her the fuck alone to deal with her problems in peace.
We do not feel pity for Harper, but solidarity. She is a strong woman, who is doing her best to put up with all this bullshit. And then, for no obvious reason, she isn’t. The focus of the film shifts, and Harper gradually loses any sense of agency, becoming the archetypal horror film victim whose job is to run from room to room while being chased by a big intimidating man.
In the first half of the film, the men may be all stereotypes but, although they are all played by the same actor, they are different stereotypes. As everything drags on, it is implied that they are all actually the same person. When one receives an injury, the same injury suddenly appears on someone else. Where we started by saying that men are all problematic, but in different ways, we’re now told that they’re all the same.
In the first half of the film, we see how Harper’s life is made materially worse by an everyday sexism that takes many forms. The victim blaming, the creepy behaviour, the hanging around in the garden without any clothes on – all these affect Harper negatively. But this does not imply that the men are equally guilty – Harper’s naked stalker is a “care in the community case” (their words not mine) who has little control over his actions. Others are much more guilty.
There is an even worse interpretation of what author Alex Garland is trying to say (and to be honest, it’s often difficult to have any idea of what he wants to say. Maybe he is gaslighting us. – Maybe the evil men are just figments of Harper’s imagination, the result of her bust up with James. After all, in a clumsy metaphor in a very early scene, Harper takes an apple from a tree and eats it without permission. Don’t we know since the Bible, that it’s women who are really to blame?
But the biggest problem is the growing incomprehensibility. I’ve already said that at around the halfway mark, Men shifts from an intelligent psychological thriller to a standard Big Man Chases Helpless Woman horror film. As everything grinds towards the end, someone notices that they haven’t used up all their CGI budget yet, and we get a couple of scenes of men giving birth to other men which leave behind any sense of either realism or sense. Just what is this shit?
I’m sure there will be people out there who want to write academic essays about what all this Really means, and the incredibly subtle use of metaphor. In real life, what it actually means is that a film which has started by clearly showing how difficult it is for women to function in a sexist society ends up looking like some meaningless out-takes from a science fiction tv programme which is more interested in spectacle that in trying to seriously engage with society.
Before seeing Men, I’d seen the deeply disappointed reaction of a couple of friends, one of whom said it was like a #metoo film written by Harvey Weinstein. An hour in, I really couldn’t understand that reaction. By the end, I was wondering whether my mates were too soft. This is a film worth watching – it looks great, and Jesse Buckley is, as ever, terrific. But the moment it starts clamouring for attention, it’s time to make your excuses and leave the cinema.
One last thing. Anyone who knows a single quote from Chekhov knows that if you see a gun in the first act, it will go off before the play is over. The same goes for axes in films. It is simply not good enough to leave an axe lying there, have a character lift it up towards the end, and still have no-one’s bloody head split in two by the end. Having said this, we have a perfect metaphor for the film – something which starts by promising much but clearly fails to deliver on this early promise.