There’s a whole damn new cinematic subgenre that’s been developing in the past decade or so, and it’s an ugly one. It is The Movie That Thinks It Is Critiquing Misogyny But Is In Fact Indistinguishable From Misogyny. That’s a mouthful, so perhaps I’ll go with merely: Misogynist “Critique” Of Misogyny. Writer-director Alex Garland was an early perpetrator with his lady-sexbot drama Ex Machina, and now he makes a stunning return to form with his enraging yet monotonous Men.
I’m sure many women will see themselves in Jessie Buckley’s (Beast) Harper, who retreats from London to an English country village for a restorative holiday on her own. Something bad has happened between her and her partner, James (Paapa Essiedu: Murder on the Orient Express); his awfulness and the horror of how their relationship ended slowly unfurls in intermittent flashbacks. But if Harper had any hope of reprieve from men’s bullshit in this beautiful and tranquil place, she’ll find none.
Right off the bat, literally the moment she arrives, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear: No Time to Die, Years and Years), the landlord of the rambling manor she’s rented for a couple weeks, proves himself to be an upper-class twit who thinks he’s charming and flirtatious; he is not. A walk in the countryside ends with a weird stalker following her home; later there will be a schoolboy who hurls nasty abuse at her, and a creepy priest whose compassion turns cold very quickly. One evening down the pub, there will be a (male) police officer who shrugs off her stalker while a couple of sketchy dudes in the background eye her menacingly. Everywhere she turns, men seem incapable of simply leaving her the fuck alone, simply not treating her like she’s 1) an audience to be entertained; 2) there to amuse them; 3) an oddity or a curiosity; 4) overreacting to her own emotions.
As I said, I’m sure many women will identify with Harper’s predicament, but I’m not sure we needed to see this. There’s nothing enlightening here — we regularly have our days ruined by creepazoids, perverts, and jerks; we don’t need to be told about it — and it sure as hell is not entertaining.
But I’m not sure that many men will see themselves in the male people onscreen in Men. There’s an exaggerated overlay to almost every single one of them in the little village, not least because Kinnear plays all of them. (Yes, even the schoolboy. That demanded an odd CGI Kinnear-mask on a child-size actor. It doesn’t really work.) It’s a strange conceit, and not in a good way. I would guess that some of the rationale behind it was to be COVID-safe (the production happened during the pandemic), to have as few people on set as possible. And it’s certainly a tour de force for Kinnear, an actor whose work I’ve enjoyed, and who deserves a splashy breakout like this.
Or maybe Garland imagined that by having the same actor play all the men, he was somehow suggesting that yes, all men are the problem — which is true — when it comes to the wariness with which women move through the world. But this is undercut by the cartoonishness of these characters… because too many real-life men — both the actual good guys (who could still be doing more to smash the patriarchy) as well as the ones who wrongly believe that they are good guys — will look at this movie and fail to see themselves in these over-the-top caricatures. (Interestingly, perhaps coincidentally, the male character here who comes across as the most authentic, if definitely still problematic, is the cop, the one who looks the most like the real Kinnear, ie, sans wigs or prosthetic teeth.)
My initial reaction to Men was: I don’t know who this movie is for. Now that I’ve thought about it, Men might be for the men who want reassurance that they cannot possibly be part of the problem because they are not like the monsters onscreen.
For monsters they are. And here is where the misogyny of Men goes beyond the false assumption that merely depicting misogyny is to critique it, and goes down a gorefest rabbit hole of active, infuriating contempt for women. After the huge early chunk of the movie in which Harper roams the village collecting abuse from randos (in between, of course, the flashbacks in which she garners sharply targeted abuse from James), it morphs into a bog-standard horror movie in which a woman is physically menaced by a dangerous creature and must fight back. (Buckley is of course terrific here, as she always is, but she warrants better than ending up the final girl in a slasher flick.) The creature is the Kinnear-men, now all seemingly the same individual, so maybe there was no overt metaphor at work at all.
Still, Garland has been weaving in folkloric and allegorical imagery all along: Harper eats an apple off a tree, and Geoffrey “jokingly” scolds her for tasting forbidden fruit. The stalker aspect of the Kinnear-creature has been slowly morphing into the Green Man nature-god out of English paganism. So… are we meant to see Harper as to blame for all that happens to her, like Eve bringing original sin into the world? (Simply depicting the very root of Christianity’s hatred of women in no way dismantles it.) Are we to take the hatred of women that the Kinnear-creatures oh-so-blatantly represent as something natural or even elemental?
This is just… misogyny. Women are not to blame for our abuse. Men do not instinctively and innately hate women. There’s certainly an argument to be made that Christianity is responsible for much of the modern hatred of women, but part of the reason for that is because it overran pagan traditions that granted women much more power and autonomy. What the hell is going on with this would-be-mythic mishmash?
But Garland is not done yet. His finale utilizes, over and over again, explicit depictions of something very like vaginal birth as the Kinnear-creature delivers new incarnations of itself. Garland positively revels in its gruesome grotesquerie, a close up on every head crowning out of vulvas that mysteriously appear in these male forms, lingering over every slithery squishy parturition. It is a disgust with women’s bodies, with what women’s bodies can do. It is perhaps the most natural thing in the world — which women do — rendered as freakish and hideous. It could not be a more fundamentally misogynist representation of women’s power. Turned against a woman onscreen. For our putative horrified entertainment.
I’m horrified, all right.