Men makes its metaphorical intentions clear right from the title. Alex Garland includes plenty of symbolic flourishes. There are lingering shots of an apple tree and pagan fertility carvings, to say nothing of the ending. The crux of the film, though, is in that one small word: Men. It refers not just to the assortment of malevolent, possibly shapeshifting men (all played by Rory Kinnear) who terrorize Harper (Jessie Buckley) during her holiday in the English countryside, but to men as an oppressive force against women throughout history; in other words, the patriarchy. Harper endures a litany of micro- and macro-aggressions, fighting off well-meaning oafs who insist upon carrying her bags as well as naked supernatural stalkers from the depths of the forest. Along the way, Men touches on gaslighting, the importance of female friendship, and that famous elevated horror chestnut, trauma.
There has been a brewing backlash against arty, metaphor-laden horror movies; some fans long for the days when the only trauma a horror movie needed was the trauma an ax caused to a person’s skull. But there’s nothing wrong with metaphors in horror movies, even when they’re quite obvious: Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Stepford Wives are very clearly about the Red Scare and the changing role of women in American society, respectively, but that doesn’t make them any less effective. The problem with Men isn’t that it’s obvious, although it is incredibly obvious, but that it undermines its entire point through one fatal miscalculation: it treats its main character as a symbol rather than a person.
On one level, Harper Marlowe is a woman reeling from the suicide of her unstable husband James (Paapa Essiedu) who decides to holiday in the English countryside for a couple of weeks. But on another level, Harper Marlowe is all of womanhood: the “forbidden fruit” of the garden and the shadowy sheela-na-gig carving reinforce the idea that Harper’s nightmarish ordeal is just the latest iteration of an age-old story. This is all well and good, but the trouble is that it’s hard to get an audience emotionally invested in a metaphor rather than a character – and Harper is more metaphor than character. Jessie Buckley gives a grounded, compelling performance, and in her capable hands Harper makes perfect sense. It’s not until the viewer leaves the theater that Harper, and Men in general, starts to fall apart.
Outside of a few flashbacks that detail her husband’s suicide, Garland leaves the audience to figure Harper out through observation and inference. She’s grieving, but still has a sturdy head on her shoulders, trusting her own eyes and never falling prey to the men’s condescending gaslighting. She’s likely from Ireland, since Buckley uses her natural accent while playing her. Her job is unclear (she speaks obliquely of “figures” during a video call for work), but considering she can afford two weeks in a beautiful country house as well as a flat with a view of the Thames, she likely does quite well for herself. She’s close friends with a woman named Riley (Gayle Rankin), who she also confided in as her marriage with James dissolved. She plays the piano reasonably well.
That might sound like enough detail to work off of, but it really isn’t. Garland gives just enough information to frustrate the audience with its vagueness; ambiguity is one thing, but the questions raised here are distracting rather than intriguing. For instance, early in the movie, Harper is asked by Geoffrey (Kinnear) whether she plays the piano, and she says no; later, however, she’s shown doing just that. Why did she feel the need to be evasive about something so minor, especially something that doesn’t factor into the plot in any other way? How did she meet Riley? For that matter, how did she meet James? How did someone as sensible and confident as Harper end up in a relationship with someone so violently paranoid? How did she end up marrying him? If Men knows what Harper’s life was like before James’ death, it doesn’t care.
What it does care about is her trauma. It cares that Harper got into screaming fights with her husband, that he punched her in the face after one of those fights, and that, after throwing him out, she watched him fall to his death. It cares that she’s stalked and terrorized by a naked, malevolent nature spirit. It cares that she’s dismissed, condescended to, insulted, and assaulted by the other men of the village. In short, it cares less about her character and more about the terrible things that happen to her. That would be bad enough in a regular movie, but in Men Harper’s meant to stand in for the entirety of womanhood. What on Earth does that say about how this movie views women?
Let it be known that this writer has no truck with the idea that creators shouldn’t write about marginalized identities they don’t belong to. That sort of thinking does nothing but discourage empathy and stifle creativity. However, empathy can only go so far, and Men demonstrates the pitfalls of good intentions. It understands the hardships that come with being a woman, and it understands that even a well-off white woman has to deal with a misogynistic society, but it has trouble seeing women as anything other than victims, because the only woman on screen for most of the runtime has precious little interiority.
There is one lovely scene where that changes. Harper takes a walk in the woods near the country house, moving without hurry, taking in the beauty of the English countryside. For the first time, she appears to be genuinely at peace; when a rumble of thunder signals the rain, she’s shedding tears of joy. Buckley plays it beautifully, suggesting a sudden, dawning epiphany that the audience isn’t privy to. It’s one of the few moments of joy in a tense, gloomy film; perhaps if the film took the time to understand Harper better, they would be more common.
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