When the trailer for Alex Garland’s Men aired, it felt promising. We see Harper (Jessie Buckley) on her solo holiday in Hertfordshire, exploring the idyllic countryside and expressing her newfound freedom after the death of her abusive husband. Yet with every flourish of independence, Harper is met with the ominous threat of men, standing in her garden, following her through the village, peeping through the letterbox. We hoped that the film, from A24, was about to articulate some of women’s embedded fears of men.
Although the trailer alluded to that constant hum of threat that we experience on a daily basis, the film fails to deliver. When things start getting hairy for Harper, she is on the phone to her friend, trying to tell her the address so she can come to her rescue. In classic horror movie fashion, the signal keeps cutting out so her friend can’t hear this vital information. It may be a small moment – and perhaps I should have suspended my disbelief and forgiven it – but it told me all I needed to know.
Garland fails to understand the realities of living as a woman. There are safety precautions that are ingrained in our way of life: the extra mile we walk to stay on the lit path, the phone calls we make while walking home. If I go to meet a Hinge date I tell my friends what pub I’m going to. They would definitely know the location of the Airbnb I was staying in while on holiday, alone. We implement these survival mechanisms because the threat of men is a constant – a knowledge that mars our everyday lives.
Men's location demonstrates how little Garland knows of our lived experience. It seems that the Hertfordshire countryside was chosen as its isolation appears more threatening. Harper is cut off from her support system by distance. In reality, most of our experiences of male-perpetuated harassment happen in cities: being groped on the Tube, followed off the night bus or heckled on the street.
Harper’s choice to leave the city, to get away from the torment of men, is one I would make myself. My experiences of the city and the country could not be more different. My body feels like my own in the country, reserved for hiking up hills and jumping over stiles. No one objectifies me while traversing rocky lanes or holding the gate for them. The most ominous experiences of my country life have involved walking through cow fields during calving season. I’m sure threatening behaviours exist in the countryside. I’m not implying that misogyny disappears once you see National Trust signs, merely that the threat is not as invasive in the way it is in the city. But you wouldn’t reach that conclusion from watching Men.
Other than Harper’s ex-husband, James (Paapa Essiedu), all of the men in the film are played by Rory Kinnear: the too-familiar landlord, the dismissive police officer, the creepy vicar and even the snarling child. The point of this casting is to demonstrate that toxic masculinity is an all-encompassing issue and actually yes, it is all men. However, these caricatures of masculinity are so overtly horrid that this message is lost. I cannot see how liberal men will watch these violent, gross depictions and come away understanding that they are part of the problem. Garland is ignoring all the subtle and exhausting realities of patriarchal society that benefit even the men who proclaim their allyship. The softboi who saps women’s emotional labour or the friend who hangs out with your abuser – 'because he's a nice guy, really' – won’t see themselves in these crude portrayals.
Men is supposedly a horror film about the very real terror that men inflict on women. Yet despite its advertising, Men still uses hallmarks of the female form as the clinching horror of its denouement. I watched in disgust as Kinnear bloats, his pregnant belly expands and then buckles under the weight and below his genitals a bald vulva appears, pushing out another bloody Rory Kinnear. This moment is repeated over and over again with vulvas appearing on random body parts, even between Kinnear’s shoulder blades.
Horror has an endless obsession with portraying the feminine as monstrous. She is the mother who invades the species through forced insemination (Alien) or a menstruating force that changes a young girl into a monstrous being (Carrie and Ginger Snaps). Some of these films are great additions to the roster, offering empowerment in the gross, bloody reality of our pain and suffering. Garland’s film doesn’t make the cut. Why, when men are supposed to be the subject of this horror, is it still our anatomy that is used to repulse the audience? Men attempts to articulate an experience that, due to his male privilege, Garland has never had to live through and so he returns to horror's most misogynistic tropes, using the female reproductive body to define monstrosity. In contrast, the only depictions of the phallic in this film are flaccid and unthreatening, with no potential for violence.
Men have always had their full range of emotions reflected in cinema, their anger having a place in thrillers, action and superhero films. It’s only in recent years that women’s aggression has fully existed in many of these genres, whereas female rage has always been offered a seat at horror’s table. It’s empowering to see Dani sacrifice her toxic boyfriend (Midsommar), Grace survive the elitist, murderous in-laws (Ready or Not) and Dawn mutilate those who attempt to rape her with her vagina dentata (Teeth). Horror offers a space for women to overcome their grief, breakups and trauma.
Throughout Men, Harper is tormented by guilt over the death of her husband. In many other horrors this fact would offer Harper a confrontation with the ghost of the man that haunts her. She would be able to say all the things she never got a chance to, screaming that she is not responsible for his behaviour. That is not what happens in Men. The final form of the terror Harper has endured is her bloody, naked husband sitting gormless on the couch, resigned to the haunting place he holds in her head. Instead of the outpouring of rage Harper deserves, she asks meekly what he wants. His response? Her love. This portrayal of abuser as wounded victim is the final nail in Men's coffin for me, particularly after the bitter results of the Depp v. Heard trial. The suggestion that Harper’s love would have prevented all the pain he weaponised against her is an awful lie. It leaves the audience without catharsis, the purge of trauma that we deserve.
Men left me feeling more anger at men, specifically Alex Garland, rather than providing the emotional release I had hoped for. The film is a performative action, holding the same weight as those who declare their 'allyship' by vowing to cross the street when they see a woman walking alone. Garland has capitalised on the current hot topic of gendered violence. His two cents on the matter is a limp expression from someone who clearly never experiences the true threat of men. If you are looking for a vessel to hold all your anger at the patriarchy, Men will not offer it.