What begins as simmering dread becomes a fully-formed nightmare, inhabited by a woman’s darkest memories and fears in visionary filmmaker Alex Garland’s feverish, shape-shifting new horror film.
A woman alone in a large, secluded house; a walk through the woods and a stranger stalking through the underbrush— this might appear to be a classic horror set-up. But Men is no conventional horror film, even if it deftly employs the genre’s most mesmerizing tropes to get deep under the skin and stick.
At its core, it is a story about a central crisis of our times— about masculinity and its manifestations; about aggressions great and small; about regret; about pernicious cycles, ancient, unchecked ideas, and cultural expectations. It’s a film uniquely interested in the foundational myths that animate our culture and what audiences bring with them to the theater.
“It’s about things I’ve been thinking about for a long time and some that have been touched upon in my earlier films,” says writer-director Alex Garland. “But what I wanted to do with it is to make a film that people can project onto as much as possible, where the viewer is a participant in the narrative. The film works in a way as a strange sort of mirror—and people will have their own ideas about what it’s about, or not about, that mean something to them.”
The film is Garland’s third as writer-director. Already, he has established a singular filmmaking voice, at ease exploring philosophy, science, ethics, and the questions embedded in our times via the framework (and subversion) of genre. His projects tend to challenge, confront, and fuel conversations.
Garland’s first two movies, Ex Machina and Annihilation, were sci-fi mind-benders. In Men, all the elemental ingredients of folk horror—isolation, nature, strangers, religion, fertility, violation, the uncanny—seem to be in play. True to the genre’s form, the film’s unremitting tension builds to a wildly careening climax of startling images. But Men’s hallucinatory imaginings directly reflect real interactions, social dictates, and gaping divisions we all see in the everyday world.
“Alex’s creative well is bottomless, but always there is a big question at the centre of his work,” observes Buckley. “And the question this script offered me was the question of manhood and how it relates to what we’re experiencing in the culture at this moment. It’s a very heightened exploration of that. As we shot the film and had lots of conversations, new things were constantly revealed but when it comes to these questions, I think we’re all still searching.”
The creative process between actors Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear, and Garland had an immediate intensity, and began with candid discussions in a lengthy rehearsal period, as many films do. But there was a difference: Garland kept churning those dialogues back into the narrative. The entire film was designed not only to spur dialogue but to be a dialogue, with the story responsive to those making it.
For Kinnear, this spirit of collaboration provided the necessary safety net to take risks in what needed to be an absolutely unflinching performance, as he dove into a prismatic array of hostile, needful behaviour from shifting angles.
“For two weeks before we even began filming, Jessie, Alex, and I sat in a room just chatting freely about all the film’s themes, about what we’d like to change, how we felt, and how we personally saw things developing,” he explains. “It was a truly rare experience—to not only have that amount of rehearsal time, but for the rehearsal to feed so directly into the narrative, scenes, and characters.”
The two lead actors— Jessie Buckley as the vacationing Harper whose refuge is repeatedly invaded; and Rory Kinnear in a polymorphic performance as multiple personas all bearing the same face— brought their own ideas to the story.
Their roles had to work in absolute synch. For as Harper tries to come to grips with recent grief and the violent turn her marriage took in its haunting final days, she can’t escape a village of encroaching, threatening men, all bearing the same face, played as variations on a theme by Kinnear. There is something increasingly strange about this sinister parade of archetypes, each a seeming fractal of the same source, connected like broken shards to one another, as their all-consuming need encircles Harper.
“I see the film as part of the intense conversation between men and women we are living through right now,” says Buckley. “So much has happened politically and socially in the last few years, and I see Men as a provocation on all that rather than an answer.”
Buckley, a native of Ireland, has risen rapidly in the last couple of years, putting her own stamp on a succession of intricate film and television roles—including Craig Mazin’s series “Chernobyl,” Charlie Kaufman’s horror drama I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the hit show “Fargo,” and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut The Lost Daughter, for which she garnered her first Oscar nomination
Kinnear adds, “I think the film expands on tropes of horror to say something about the interactions of men and women, about what men are capable of, both in terms of what they are able to do in society and what they do in relationships. I hope audiences feel as I did when I first read it—that it is deeply felt, offers a great deal of thematic depth, continually surprises, and then it coalesces into something beautiful and revelatory about who we all are.”
While doubles and doppelgangers have an established home in film history, the chance to play a wider multiplicity of characters—or, perhaps, the many fractals of one personality—comes along rarely in an actor’s career. In most cases, it happens in satires. Alec Guinness played nine roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets, Eddie Murphy seven in The Nutty Professor and Peter Sellers three in Dr. Strangelove. The task for Rory Kinnear was a more darkly psychological one. But the opportunity to tinker with a whole chain of masculine facets as variations on a theme lured him like a magnet.
A member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, a familiar star of British stage and television, and winner of two Olivier Awards and a BAFTA nomination, Kinnear is most widely known as Bill Tanner, MI6’s Chief of Staff, in the Bond series. But his greatest love is going beyond boundaries. So it was that the uncompromising, unique vision of Men gripped him from his first read of it.
Operating as it does in the space of primal fears and enduring cultural myths, the film poses many open questions that Garland hopes will engage audiences. “This film leans very hard into the idea that a story is a 50-50 split between the storytellers and the story receivers,” he notes. “More than any film I’ve worked on, this one was anticipating an audience would join the conversation.”
Yet, the story couldn’t be any more deliberate in its meticulous construction. And ultimately, Men reverses the very tropes it uses to keep the audience entranced—toppling the traditional horror movie structure. The malevolent force, rather than getting stronger, seems to grow only increasingly vulnerable and desperate.
Says Garland, “It was an interesting thing to work out because it takes away the one thing that, in pure genre terms, makes a horror film scary, which is the power of the monster to be invulnerable to attacks and the power to harm. What happens here diminishes that power massively as that force becomes increasingly pathetic, so it perhaps invites a different kind of response.”
For Buckley and Kinnear, the impetus to explore to their outer edges came directly from the atmosphere, one set in motion not only by Garland but by everyone on the set, as each person grappled with the film’s depths—with the cultural and psychological issues the story taps into, and the intimate strife they generate. “Everybody on this crew, across the board, in every department was given a space to be their most reflective and creative,” says Buckley. “And we all got so into it that we wanted to go not just to the expected places, but beyond the expected.”
Writer-director Alex Garland
Alex Garland began his career as a novelist, most famously writing The Beach and Tesseract. He moved into screenwriting with his debut 28 Days Later, directed by Danny Boyle and produced by DNA Films. Garland made his directorial debut in 2015 with Ex Machina, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Original Screenplay along with a BAFTA award for Outstanding British Film, and BAFTA’s Outstanding Debut by a British Director. In 2018, Garland released his second film as writer-director, Annihilation, based on the 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer. His other screenplays include Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, Dredd, and the video game Enslaved: Odyssey to the West which
he co-wrote with Tameem Antoniades in 2010. Garland also executive produced 28 Weeks Later. His original 8-part TV series Devs, for which he is the sole writer and director, was released in 2020 by FX Networks. Garland is currently in production directing his original script Civil War, an action feature set in a near-future America, also for A24 Films