New from Sarah Welch-Larson on Substack: Men (2022)

These monthly in-depth essays will usually be for paid subscribers only, but I wanted to open up the first issue to everyone on my mailing list. If you like what you read here, please consider a paid subscription, as it helps me keep the pilot light on.

I’m going to be discussing the themes, plot, and imagery of Alex Garland’s Men in detail. If you haven’t seen the film and are spoiler-averse, I recommend seeking out the movie before reading.

Alex Garland’s Men has been divisive, at least according to my extremely non-scientific survey of the reviews from the people I follow on Letterboxd. Most of what I’ve read has been mixed; even the positive reviews have been measured, praising the atmosphere and the look of the film while maintaining their reservations. The negative reactions are many, and varied; Men seems to irritate everyone who didn’t like it in a slightly different way. Reasons including: there’s not enough there there, the story isn’t well-formed enough, the Biblical allusions are too obvious, the Biblical allusions are too oblique, the character of Harper (Jessie Buckley) isn’t fully realized as a person, the character of James (Paapa Essiedu) is a void, the story shouldn’t have been told by a man, the premise (“men bad”) is too one-note.

I certainly didn’t have a fun time watching it; I keep going back and forth on the necessity of the movie. Did we really need a movie made by a man about a woman’s experience dealing with the patriarchy? (I suspect the story might have been better received if it had been written and directed by a woman, but I can’t judge the movie based on hypotheticals, only on what actually exists.) All art, in a way, is an attempt to make sense of the world around us, so why can’t a man tell this particular story? The world we happen to live in is soaked in patriarchy, and Garland seems intent on exploring the consequences. I’m glad he’s willing to tackle the concept, and I think the resulting artwork is a very good movie, even as I’m left frustrated by it. I admire Men more than I like it.

Garland’s premise might be “men bad,” but the actual framing of the problem is much more interesting: Men posits that patriarchy is original sin. Christian tradition holds that Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil against God’s explicit command, and shared the fruit with Adam, who was with her; as a result, the two become aware of their nakedness and are cast out of the Garden of Eden forever. Eve is cursed with the pain of childbirth; Adam, with the pain of manual labor, and Eve’s “desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”1 In Genesis, patriarchy is a result of original sin (a topic Garland is clearly fascinated by). Garland takes cause and effect and flips them: in Men, it is patriarchy that quite literally causes the fall of man, and the effects of that fall reverberate throughout the rest of the story.

One of the many complaints I’ve read about the film is that Harper is defined primarily by trauma; in a series of red-lit flashbacks, we watch as she argues with her husband James over a pending divorce. He threatens to kill himself over their split; he tries to control their relationship, and when he hits her, she casts him out of their apartment. James then forces his way into the apartment above theirs, then falls—or jumps, it’s left unclear—past Harper’s window to his death. The two lock eyes as he passes through the air, and for a moment, they seem to understand each other, though they can’t communicate. He can’t take his actions back, and her door is closed to him forever. The fall leaves James lifeless on the ground, his ankle broken and his arm split by a railing spike. Harper retreats to a cottage in the countryside surrounded by lush green woods, but James’ death haunts her: the same red that soaked the light in their apartment is painted on the walls of the cottage’s kitchen, a representation of violence invading a structure that’s supposed to provide shelter. The men in the nearby village (all played by Rory Kinnear) prove themselves to be increasingly unfriendly. We don’t learn much else about Harper as a person, but we don’t really need to: she’s a woman who’s been forced to bear the blame of her husband’s attempts to control her, and his resulting fall; like Eve, she stands in for women everywhere.

Harper is unmoored and isolated from any support. She’s a lone woman in the woods, and therefore wary; everyone in the village nearby is a man, heightening Harper’s lack of power in this unfamiliar place. The men in the village, from the vicar to the cop to a troubled child, all have the exact same face: just as Harper stands in for women everywhere, these men are all men. They populate the pub; one owns the house Harper stays in, patriarchy as a literal landlord who makes awkward unfunny jokes and assumptions about Harper’s marital status (he repeatedly calls her “Mrs. Marlowe” rather than her actual name). One wanders naked out of the woods, silent and curious as he explores the grounds around Harper’s cottage; as the film progresses, his face fills with oak leaves, a reversion to the Green Man carvings that populate Britain’s old churches, and his demeanor shifts from one of innocence to one of sinister intent.

In the film’s final fever-dream sequence, the Green Man returns to Harper’s cottage, sticking his arm through the mail slot as she watches, horrified. Fully aware that the police won’t save her—they’ve arrested the Green Man for trespassing once already and let him go because he hasn’t actually done any physical harm—Harper stabs the Green Man in the arm, splitting it precisely where James’ arm was split during the fall. The men of the village appear and disappear around the cottage, each one come to confront Harper for the crime of being an independent woman; each one carries the exact same wound as the Green Man, and as James before him. The boy accuses Harper of being unwilling to “play”—an accusation any woman who’s been catcalled has heard—and the vicar declares that he’s “decided that [Harper] is an expert in carnality.” Her only crime is being a woman in a man’s space—that is to say, the world. Patriarchy has infected Harper’s surroundings, and the men around her blame her for their resulting wounds, even though they aren’t her fault.

When the Green Man appears one final time, it’s so that he can die, but not by Harper’s hand. Harper is a witness in this story, not the “final girl.” She won’t be able to escape her situation, and she has no control over what will happen. She can only watch as the Green Man gives birth to another man with the same face and the same wounds: a split arm and a snapped ankle. This newborn man also gives birth to another who looks just like himself, and the cycle repeats: generations of men lasting seconds, existing only to breathe life into the next version of themselves. They’re all marked by the same wounds from James’ fall; they all bear the same wounds of that original sin.

I keep getting stuck at the denouement. Garland doesn’t seem interested in telling us where to go once he’s outlined the problem: patriarchy, and the grasping for control that it entails, is original sin, and it will go on perpetuating itself. Men doesn’t tell us what to do with this thesis; Garland invites us simply to sit and contemplate the horror of such an existence alongside Harper. This is the movie’s greatest strength, and I think its greatest weakness: it won’t tell us what to do or how to feel, but it also isn’t interested in further discussion beyond pointing out the existence of the problem. I’m glad the movie doesn’t tell me what to think or do, but all the same, I wish it had more teeth. I want a proposal for next steps; I also don’t want didacticism. I’m not certain that a movie like Men can win either way.

After the blood and the births, after the action dies down, Harper sits on the couch next to the newborn ghost of her dead husband. She’s holding an axe. She asks what he wants from her; she might as well be every woman asking every man what they want. James says simply that he wants Harper’s love. All she can say in response is a heavy: “Yeah.” It’s an acknowledgement, although it isn’t an acceptance. It simply is, and it must be lived with.

from The Dodgy Boffin

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