Men (2022) is a film about men, made by a man, Alex Garland, starring a woman, Jessie Buckley, and also another man (Rory Kinnear) as a whole bunch of men. Does that make sense? Good. Men is undoubtedly a movie that invites Big Gender Questions, so we decided the best way to approach it would be drawing on all the available genders here at No But Listen (man and woman) to dissect it properly. Let’s get to it! Woman
All men are the same, says Alex Garland – in that they are all played by various iterations of Rory Kinnear with different hats on. But also, more interestingly, they’re all part of one overarching hivemind irrevocably harmed by every wrongdoing, perceived or otherwise, by the women around them.
And that’s a really interesting approach, at least for me, coming from the point of view of a woman who loves cinema. Because so many stories in film centralize men as the flashpoint around which everything happens – to see Harper (another entry into the impossibly meteoric rise of Jessie Buckley as one of the great actors of this era of cinema) as the centrepiece to this film, after the death of her abusive husband apparently sent shockwaves through this inter-connected ecosystem of men, makes for an interesting twist on that premise.
But more than that, it captures this sense of the isolated woman against the enormous patriarchal whole – a harm to one of them is a harm to all of them, and that harm comes in many forms, from the practically invented to the arguably literal harm Harper has done the men around her. It’s not exactly the most subtle take on depicting the enormity of a patriarchal structure – she’s literally a woman, alone, surrounded by the great grasping tentacles of the same man pursuing her at every turn – but Garland doesn’t often go for subtlety. Giving us such a blatant backdrop to work with allows for the film to go to some interesting places in the detail work, and it delves into some compelling stuff about the blame women shoulder for men’s actions and how larger systems of oppression function to keep the oppressed in their place.
In taking the concept of this great patriarchal mould system to such an over-the-top horror movie extreme, Garland is able to stretch the concepts that uphold them in real life thin enough to put under a microscope and really examine. Like most social horror, it jams pedal to the metal to shine a light in the darkest and most uncomfortable corners.
As a woman, and as a woman who has written literal books about hating men, this movie was not (to me) about pointing and jeering at the failings of men as a gender or a group, but rather, looking at how those things almost inescapably influence the lives of the women consumed by them. And, as a woman, that’s what made it so damn fascinating.
Is Men a film that hates men? Is Alex Garland letting the side down by making a movie where masculinity is so often framed as the villain? By calling his film Men, was he aiming to get exactly this type of reaction from his audience? There is a societal tic, observable in many conversations, where when men talk about an issue, any issue, the language that they use to communicate an opinion or idea takes the form of an absolute. To put it simply and in very broad terms, women mostly speak for themselves and men speak for everyone. This seems to sum up the effect of Men on its audience. Alex Garland is viewed to be speaking for everyone when it comes to men being a bit shit.
I’m going to state the obvious here: Men is a horror film, a film designed to interrogate our worst fears about ourselves and others, a film about guilt and responsibility, about relationships that are as complex as they are damaging.
Men is not a film that hates men, it’s a film that calls out how toxic, damaging, and manipulative love can be, especially when added to the gender imbalances between men and women. It’s a fact of life and culture that men at large aren’t as engaged in their emotions, especially as what it means to be male or masculine feels to some like it is in flux. Alex Garland isn’t letting the side down, he’s trying to lift that side to new – and sometimes uncomfortable – places.
Garland has pulled a nifty trick here. The very nature and topic of this film invites these reactions, he wants us to think the worst of this film because it exists to provoke a reaction. It is not about men versus women, it is about how one woman’s trauma has influenced how she sees the world and the malevolent, ambiguous force pursuing her.
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By Lou MacGregor and Kevin Boyle
(header image via Vague Visages)