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I've Had More Than Enough of 'Men'
Alex Garland's new horror film hits too close to home in too many ways.
Mild spoilers ahead.
I used to hate scary movies. When I was nine, I made the mistake of thinking I was brave enough to watch them at my Halloween-themed birthday party (I have a late October birthday, so no, this was not weird). My best friend’s mom, having caught wind that we were planning on playing Pet Sematary around her future-veterinarian daughter, asked my dad not to, but that only steeled my resolve.
My friend was spared (she texted me recently that she still hasn’t seen it, nearly 20 years later!), but I vowed to watch it after the party. Alas, that night I slept in my parents’ bed. Or, I tried to sleep, laying stiff on my side, terrified at thought of getting stabbed in the back through the mattress by an undead devil woman laying beneath the bed frame.
From then on I steered clear of scary movies, until I started dating my husband, who loves, loves scary movies, and wanted to take me to see the new Halloween movie. Not wanting to look like a baby, I agreed to go, and was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the experience. The film was stressful and exciting, but also funny (thank you, Danny McBride), and felt resolute in its whole "Strode women’s revenge” conclusion.
In a theater of dozens of people, I could wince or gasp in a chorus, free to express my fear without judgment. There was some sort of magic in the camaraderie of the experience, something I didn’t get from seeing other stunning, not-scary movies. We went on to watch Us, Midsommar, and Parasite, all in theaters. After that, the pandemic hit. We only started going back to the theaters in December, buying tickets for early weekend matinees or weeknight shows to House of Gucci and Everything Everywhere All at Once.
It was while watching the latter that we caught the trailer for Men, the latest film by Alex Garland (Ex Machina and Annihilation). Immediately, my husband whispered that he wanted to see that next. I obliged, despite feeling uninterested, and perhaps even somewhat disinterested, in seeing the film at all. I mean, it looked fine from the trailer, but a good time it looked not!
In the trailer, there’s a woman — it appears that she watches someone die, and then she goes to a place where she’s seemingly surrounded by men who appear to be openly disrespecting her, or objectifying her, or stalking her, or some combination of all three. (They are also all played by the same man, Rory Kinnear.) It’s obviously a horror film. And it’s titled, of all things, Men. But OK! Fine. When I saw the trailer, I thought: it looks stunning at least, and maybe it’s scary, but maybe it’s thrilling. Maybe it’s not as obvious as the trailer makes it out to be, and I’ll leave the film feeling like the men in Men aren’t so scary after all!
It turns out that the trailer tells you exactly what Men is — somewhere between a story about grief and a metaphor about gender-based violence. Not that I would have written off the film if I thought it would be so obvious, but if I had been more honest with myself I might have been prepared for what I was to watch — a series of men, all behaving badly to various degrees.
But after watching Men, I had very little desire to understand the film at any deeper level. Instead, I felt myself wondering why I watched it at all, and in a small theater of 20 seats, at that. I couldn’t wince, or gasp, or, if we were in our living room at home, make a long guttural droning noise a la Tina Belcher with other stressed patrons. Instead, I was surrounded by impenetrable stillness. When the movie became unbearably suspenseful or gratuitously gory, I could only close my eyes. I mentally cursed my husband for wanting to watch this movie in theaters — why couldn’t we be in the comfort of our home, where I could pause the movie as necessary and curse unabashedly at the TV screen?
It’s not that Men was bad, because it’s actually quite good. At least, I think it was. I’m trying to give it the benefit of the doubt, given I was too distracted by my stress to be more definitive about its quality. But it was pretty, if not beautiful. It was suspenseful, perhaps too much so: the “horror” of the film itself doesn’t start until about the last third, so I found myself waiting for it to begin for nearly an hour — a metaphor for the suspicion of interpersonal violence that permeates our experiences, maybe. Or maybe I’m projecting (though please buckle up, as this is just where my projecting begins!)
Jessie Buckley brings a confidence to her role as Harper, unwilling to be gaslit into downplaying her concerns about the men around the town, and resistant to narratives that men project upon her. Rory Kinnear’s performance as all of the men is mind-blowing.
But many things can be true. A movie can be good, and simultaneously not worth watching, and for me, I think that’s exactly where I’ve landed on Men.
The basic premise of Men — that each of these male characters (and even the female cop who assists Harper with her stalker) represents points on a spectrum of behaviors that are examples of gender-based violence, and that they are all metaphors for how Harper is processing the tragedy that is the loss of her husband — is all fine. It’s a worthy story to tell, but it felt very basic and rudimentary rather than incisive or smart. I didn’t feel like I understood Harper’s experience any better through this film. Instead, it just felt like I was being reminded of my own.
Kinnear’s characters only made me think of the people (mostly men) I’ve crossed paths with, met, dated, or have been related to, who’ve made me think their abusive behavior was my fault — who have insisted that I am overreacting to their behavior, or have even been too pushy despite presenting themselves as harmless, or were strangers who catcalled me or touched me without my consent. I thought of people who’ve threatened to harm themselves, or have blamed me for their actions or behavior that physically or mentally harmed me.
I certainly didn’t need to watch Men to learn that such people exist. Nor did I need to watch their metaphorical representation on screen. I didn’t feel triggered, necessarily, but I came to the conclusion that I am just not the audience for this movie, even despite its strengths.
Even if it weren’t for my personal experiences putting me off Men, I cannot help but recall the past month — the imminent overturning of Roe v. Wade, the Buffalo shooting, the Uvalde massacre, the fucking Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial — and think, I absolutely did not need to watch this film right now. I do not need to entertain a world of violent, traumatized men, in which gender-based violence runs rampant and unchecked. That world exists, it is hell, and we are living in it.
I am sure there are people who feel seen by this type of film. And that is fine, and more power to those people. But I don’t feel seen watching this film. I don’t feel like being able to relate to Harper makes Men any more worthwhile to watch. I would much rather feel ignored than feel like Men wants me to notice it, noticing me.
I don’t know. I’m not telling you not to see Men, nor do I think my reaction was solely due to bad timing (if it’s not an attack on women via abortion restrictions, it’s an attack on trans women via “grooming” laws, and if it wasn’t the Uvalde shooting, it would be another act of violence committed by another person with a history of abusive behavior). But this movie just took a lot out of the very little energy and mental fortitude that I had left. I wasn’t ready to sit through an allegory for the gender-based violence we experience on a daily basis. Maybe I will be one day, but not any time soon. For now, I’ve had more than enough of Men.