On Alex Garland’s “Men”

Dee Richards
7 min readOct 17, 2023

It is not news that Annihilation is my favorite movie. The simultaneous beauty and horror of the movie make my heart flutter. Still, I am not here to talk about Annihilation. I watched Men the other day, and I am torn. Once again, Garland has delivered some deeply disturbing images. Before even connecting the movie to my favorite movie, I said to my spouse: “I haven’t been scared often, but this did it.” The most fearful movie moments, for me, came in the form of the bear-human in Annihilation, the conjoined mother and son in Color Out of Space (highly recommend for psychological terror fans), and most of Event Horizon when I was 17 and had seen far fewer true horrors. The tension of Men is what drives the horror here more than anything. The constant worry for Harper’s (Jessie Buckley) security in her time of emotional vulnerability is very tense. But man, that hand thing really creeps me out, proving once again that Garland knows body horror.

There is so much symbolism both apparent and restrained that pervades this movie that I know I would have to watch it many times and consider each point carefully. I came away from it thinking the point a little belabored. I was also conflicted at this perspective of the dangers of men presented by a cisgender, heterosexual, white-passing male. It didn’t sit well with me to be summarily labeled “feminist” from this identity. Being an intersectional feminist, AND a fan of Alex Garland is a difficult place to be when watching this. Comparing to other modern, mainstream feminine-issue centered films, it is severely lacking.

Promising Young Woman, the 2020 psychological thriller/lightweight slasher was written, directed, produced, and starring a truly amazing amount of women for a Hollywood hit. She Said, the drama and borderline psychological horror about pervasive sexual assault in Hollywood was written, directed by, and starring many women — most notably Ashley Judd, one of #MeToo’s biggest voices. These are, in my opinion, some of the most obviously feminist films in the current market, and so my best basis for comparison. Men, however, is written and directed by a man; it is produced entirely by men, and half of the 2-person main cast is a man (Rory Kinnear). These are, most simply the facts of the film which do not stand up when in comparison with the former two mentioned. However, there are deeper considerations for the impact of the imagery, the story, and the role of Harper and her estranged partner that are not even considered in the film.

In my search for a more sensible understanding of takes on the film, I read some online reviews. Working in the sphere of feminist horror myself, I was ready to believe both sides of the struggle in my mind: that this was a decent representation of the threats inherent to femininity, and that this was a blatant disregard for those threats. As a passionate researcher, I always find it best to look over many points-of-view and seek out the most reputable sources. I found a clever article in Them magazine: “Alex Garland’s Men Upholds Gender Essentialism” by Abby Monteil. This article distinctly fuses feminist and queer theory (a combination highly respected for intersectional feminism), and concludes talking about Annihilation. The article makes interesting points on the gender binary as oppressive to all, and touches gently on the racism imbued in Harper’s husband representing the Karenological ghost story of black male violence. However, the review itself feels as surface-level as it is claimed the Garland’s imagery is. Ending in a lengthy description of Annihilation tastes bitter to me, despite it being my favorite movie. Not applying techniques of comparison to modern feminist media examples feels lacking, and the overall article comes off a bit soap-boxy, even as I agree with Monteil’s points.

The critical consensus on Men listed in Rotten Tomatoes summarizes excellent cast performances but lackluster narrative and themes. I always have to appreciate an actor who plays multiple characters and you have to ask yourself: “Wait, was that the same guy?” However, my kudos goes far more to the makeup team for these amazing, seamless prosthetics. Kinnear did a very good job, but the makeup is what sold it. Not to side-step Buckley’s performance, but the character wasn’t really that great. There is no character for Harper without male-induced trauma. As a survivor of domestic violence and male-induced trauma myself, personal identity beyond your traumatic experience is key to healing. Though the movie does (barely) pass the Bechdel test, it really upholds the stressful ideology that to compete with men, women have to basically become masculinized. In Harper’s case, hardened and emotionless to overcome the multi-faceted potential of male violence. This is problematic for me since it plays directly within the bounds of that classic image of casual stoicism as ideal, which is a vision made and perpetuated by men to dissuade from “feminine” emotionality. For that, I am a little disappointed for the feminist claim while reinforcing anti-feminine ideology.

While having a man issue these messages is troubling for me, as a feminist and female-adjacent* person, I have to also argue the other side of this conversation. Consider this: This is not a story for women. Going into reviewing this film with that in mind, it is profoundly groundbreaking! Watching it with my male-adjacent* spouse, who is recovering from the one-two punch white male privilege and toxic masculinity, I could see that the blunt imagery and belabored points are EXACTLY what men need. I write feminist stories for women mostly. My writing already assumes a level of feminist theoretical familiarity, or at the very least, a curiosity for domestic abuse survivors. I believe the film, by extension, assumes a male or male-adjacent audience. If that is so, then Garland is a master. He objectifies and mutilates the male antagonists, while preserving the female-centered protagonist. As the protagonist, it is intended that the viewer should side with Harper. Putting her through these emotional trials is a wake-up call for men. These are not pointed for women, who already have known, or lived, much of the circumstances she endures. Sometimes on a daily basis. These events are rarely remarkable in the average socialized feminine life, such to the point that they almost fade into the background. Women I’ve known say a man is good if he doesn’t hit her, remembers important dates, and has an income. THESE SHOULD BE BARE MINIMUM REQUIREMENTS. That being said, do you really think those socialized feminine really need to be pointed out the pervert priest, the cruel male child, or the nice-guy turned mean? No. If not, then the message is for those socialized male since socialized non-binary is, at this point, still pretty rare and the patriarchy has surely not released its hold at the time of writing.

Monteil stating that the points of the movie are simplistic takes an approach that the story is intended for women as a “Look ladies, I get it!” from Garland, but I disagree. Proof of point: vagina-having people rarely truly FEAR childbirth. Yeah, it seems pretty bad before (and after) you’ve done it, but that is not imagery intended to truly scare those who have been aware of that potential for most of their adult lives. It might be argues that the image of male birth speaks to perpetuating toxic masculine behaviors, but I don’t really think that is a huge concern for modern women. Maybe for some, but certainly not for the majority. Occam’s Razer that shit: is it more possible that Garland is trying to tell a small selection of brainwashed women “hey, watch out how you raise your boys” or that he is, from a male position, telling men to listen to women, to experience their side? Is he trying to place himself alongside She Said or Promising Young Woman, or is doing EXACTLY what was asked, talking to men as a man?

I still haven’t come to a conclusion about my feelings on this and in-depth examination of the imagery, overt and covert, will take a lot more time. Has Garland made a masterpiece? No. I would not say that this will ever be my favorite movie. The body horror alone is enough to dissuade me from regular viewing. As a horror movie in general though, I would rank it fairly high for tension, creeping dread, and body horror (I don’t want to get into the so-called “legitimacy” of what constitutes horror imagery, since that is a different argument). I do wish for a better conclusion, since horror fans are obsessed with endings. Still, if my points are well-placed, I see his work here as relating to my own in the sense that we are speaking directly to a population that still require a healthy dose of obviousness, but for very different reasons. If the ends justify the means, and the ends are greater gender equality, obviousness is a sin I am prepared to bear as a writer. I hope Garland feels similarly. Taking aim at gender essentialism for this film assumes that the world has moved beyond patriarchal control, and that the gender-binary and Garland’s use of gender tropes is ill-placed. That is not the world I live in, but I hope it shall be one day.

  • Note: Here I use the term female- or male-adjacent, since my partner and I were socialized and, at times, present as our gender assigned at birth, but consider ourselves non-binary.
  • Referenced article, read here.

--

--

Dee Richards

Dee has a BA in English with honors from UC Irvine; 3 awards in CNF; 8 fiction and CNF pubs to date; writer for The Key Reporter Mag; getting a Masters in CNF.