"I used birth": Alex Garland on creating the horror in "Men," miscommunication and vicars

The filmmaker spoke to Salon about that WTF ending sequence and how the film hinges on miscommunication

Published May 22, 2022 11:00AM (EDT)

Men (Kevin Baker/A24)
Men (Kevin Baker/A24)

The following interview contains spoilers for "Men."

Writer/director Alex Garland's "Men," which opened last week, may be the filmmaker's most complex work — and that is saying something given that his last two features were "Ex Machina" and "Annihilation." Garland likes to play in the sandbox where the organic meets the mechanic, but it is his precise command of language as well as imagery that is what makes his films so striking. He creates meanings that are deliberate but also ambiguous and open to interpretation. 

And that is certainly true with his latest drama, "Men," that like his other films, provides a surrealistic meditation on gender and power. "Men" takes a very simple story and contorts it in ways that provoke and disturb. 

Harper (Jessie Buckley) is coping with the loss of her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu), whom she had planned to divorce; his death may, in fact, be a suicide. While on a solo getaway in the country, she meets various men (all played by Rory Kinnear), who make her increasingly more anxious and unsettled. Then a series of violent and bizarre things start to occur. She is followed by a naked intruder, and in another sequence, Harper is stalked in the country house. In what may be the film's most notorious episode, Harper witnesses all of the men Kinnear plays . . . give birth to each other

Garland lets viewers decide what to make of the events that unfold in his strange and striking new film. He spoke with Salon about "Men" to unpack some of the meanings and images

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What inspired this story? It is a fable. It is a treatise on gender inequality. It is a story of love, guilt, haunting, and healing. There are so many things going on here which leaves considerable room for interpretation, and multiple readings given all the ambiguity.

Without trying to be cute, I would hope it has elements of all of those things. It's a story that I've been writing and rewriting for a really long time — I think it has been roughly around 15 years. Between writing "Sunshine" and "Never Let Me Go," I wrote the first draft of the script and I've been reworking it for a long time. Time has been passing and things have been changing, and debates have been enlarging, and searchlights have been brightening, so it all fed in.

In terms of what it's about, it's very much about the viewer. It is hugely about the viewer, more than anything. As I was locking the edit, I showed "Men" to a few people, and I had one friend saying it's a deeply feminist film about the patriarchy and toxic masculinity and the other friend say this was a film about how women drive men mad. I thought that was illustrative of the degree to which when people offer interpretations of films; they are typically talking more about themselves than they are about the thing they are watching.

Yes, we put it through our own filters.

We put everything through our own filters, everything – the taste of orange juice to semi-surrealist movies.

The film deals with the psychological, verbal, and physical abuse of men towards women. I found Harper makes herself very clear with wanting Geoffrey, the caretaker at the country house to leave, but he does not get the hint. Her interactions with the police about a naked intruder parse out the law in a way that upsets her. And we'll get to the scene with the vicar.

Can you talk about the theme of mis/communication and why it appealed?

It appealed because in some respects it's a film about that; there is a miscommunication between filmmakers and film viewers to some extent. At least in an inevitable way. My intentions when making something, no matter how clear I try to be, will not necessarily translate. We are all in the business of miscommunicating, much more than we realize. The example I tend to give is that we have legislators trying to write clear laws and then lawyers and judges having a whole career based on interpreting those laws.

Then imagine what scope there is for miscommunication in a fictional narrative. What is miscommunication? Is it miscommunication if it is embedded in the nature of communication? Is it mis? What we are doing constantly is, in a slightly fuzzy way, trying to be clear to each other. Text messages get misinterpreted. Any given event has any number of interpretations on social media, and novels get interpreted by two best friends in completely different ways. In a way, where is the accurate communication? We are trying to do the best we can in a fiercely subjective world. 

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That ambiguity appeals to me. When James punches Harper, that was it for me. He's done! But we don't know the history of the characters . . .

He's done as in, for you in terms of your ability to empathize with him or feel warmth for him? That is now removed as a possibility as a product of his punch?

And that she should have nothing more to do with him.  

Indeed. Yeah, I get it. 

MenMen (Kevin Baker/A24)The language in the film is very precise. I was struck by the vicar's chat where he prompts Harper to confront the possibility that she is, indeed, responsible for her husband's suicide. Again, it's interpretation, and how you read that? If communication is the macro, what observations do you have about the dialogue, which is the micro?

The language is absolutely precise, you're right. It's very deliberate. I've had a few people in my life [die by] suicide. It is certainly quite difficult to go through life without having meaningless tragedy happen. We'd all be supernaturally lucky to have that kind of life to avoid it entirely.

One of the things I remember being very struck by in one instance, I had an awful bit of timing. I tried to contact someone 24 hours too late. I was then left with a very, very powerful sense of guilt. I had no way of knowing prior to that that I was 24 hours too late. It just happened I was 24 hours too late in reaching out. What people would do is that they would try to console me in a fake way, which was saying, in a subtext way, it wouldn't have made any difference. What I feel very strongly is that you don't know that. It might have made a difference. Who knows? If someone in that state is given information or a kind word or reaching out 12 or 24 hours earlier, if that might have been significant and kept them alive another day, and things might have started to get better. It is often the way with terrible states of depression that they have the capacity to get better. I felt that the consolation was well-meaning but kind of disingenuous, I suppose. It's typical of the kinds of horrible difficulties we're presented with. 

This is not me making statements about the film, but it is the kind of conversations one could have about the film, I hope. I essentially agree with your statement when you say that her husband has crossed the point where she should now have nothing more to do with him. You talked about precision of the words. She uses very precise words in response to his act [punching her] — a brilliant cutting phrase, "What's that? Your plan to win me back? Just get the f**k out of here," is basically what she says.

If he then dies — and it's basically unclear whether it was a suicide or not — it raises the question of how that would make her feel. If I were her, this is the way I would be thinking about it: If I had said and did exactly the same thing, but I did it in a different way — instead of screaming, or stated in a different way — would he still be alive? Where therefore is my position in that? That's a complicated set of questions. I agree that what she's done is not just justified, but earned. It may even be necessary at that moment. But something being necessary doesn't prevent you from sense of private doubt. What the vicar is doing in a very cruel way, is placing a stiletto blade of viscousness that is perfectly judged to attack her own sense of decency and certainty. 

You know she's hurting, and he twists that knife.

Just to be clear, it is the knife we twist ourselves. In a way, she doesn't need the vicar for that knife to be twisted. This is what we do to ourselves. The flip side of it — and Jessie and I would talk a lot about this — is where does guilt reside? Why does it end up residing in the places it does? Every rational part of us can see that guilt should not reside in a place, but it does. 

The film contains very vivid images, from a hand that is split into a V in one violent episode and is later used to strangle Harper to a WTF birth sequence. What accounts for these indelible, visceral images? There are many beautiful images in the film but there is a real mix of beauty and horror.

I hope there is beauty and horror. I don't want to explain that sequence too much because I think it is the way people can respond to it themselves. But what I will say is that the starting point of interest was I've written a script where it said these characters all mutate into each other. I was thinking about that and cycles and how one thing leads to another, cycles of repetition or continuation along a line, not necessarily repeating but carrying on in different forms. I had my own reasons why in the end this birth sequence felt appropriate for various ways that were not conflicting with each other but supporting each other.

But separately, there was something I found interesting about it. Movies use deep sea creatures and insects to draw on for aliens and monsters or horror images, and in this film, I used birth. When I showed images of birth, it was fascinating to see the horrified way people reacted to them because they involve things like blood and stretched parts of bodies. But birth is the way everyone exists on the planet. It might be via C-section, or a breech, or it might be through a vagina, but that's how we all got here. And it is interesting the way in which something – which is actually standard, not just fundamental – is so provocative to people. There is just a weird dissonance about that. It made me think about one of the bits of iconography that the film uses, which is a sheela na gig, which is a woman opening her vulva and holding gaze. There was a time, I assume, when people were less freaked out about this, but maybe the Victorians destroyed that and left us in this paroxysm that we can't get out of.

MenMen (Kevin Baker/A24)Your film is full of unforgettable and violent moments, in addition to the aforementioned scenes, there is a haunting shot of James impaled on the fence. But I was also disturbed by something rather absurd — when the vicar, having truly upset Harper's fragile emotional state, takes a moment to apply lip balm after fondling the slats of the bench they are sitting on. Can you unpack that?

That was something Rory Kinnear added. Rory is extremely funny and very witty, and he has a really nuanced sense of what is ridiculous and what is ridiculous at what moment — what is the timing to make it land with the most effect. The mixture of the way the vicar lays hand on the slats of the bench and what he infers by the slats in the bench and the lip balm, I can't exactly explain why it's so funny and also so creepy, but all I know is he said, "I've got an idea." [Laugh] And when he did it, I said, "That was a good idea."

The film shifts genres going from psychological thriller to horror to sci-fi and back again. Viewers really have to recalibrate what they are watching from scene to scene. What can you say about the deliberately uncomfortable tone of your film?  

Tonally, I thought within this subject matter, some parts of it are really, really frightening and really sinister, and dark, and some of them are pathetic and even laughably pathetic and have comedy within them. Tonally, that may seem or feel very jarring, but it does also feel true to life. Things do veer from being really stupid to being really intimidating quite quickly, and sometimes they can coexist. Something can be very frightening and very pathetic.

"Men" is currently in theaters.

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By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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