A24's Strangest Movie and Its Powerful Message
On May 20th, 2022, the world was introduced to the newest project from A24 Films, Alex Garland's Men, starring Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear. As someone who saw it during its theatrical run, I can safely say the film has not left my head since. With an unorthodox plot and some of the most shocking visuals I've ever seen I think it's safe to say that Men is not only one of the weirdest movies of 2022, but also one of the most strange in A24's vast catalogue. But what is it exactly that makes this movie so unique?
Men truly is one of a kind, it's a movie I was eager to see since the first time I saw the trailer. I was so excited in fact that on opening day, I drove to my local theater at 10am to watch it in a theater with maybe three other strangers in attendance. Although I enjoyed the movie very much, it's not one I would recommend seeing at 10am, because as soon as I left the theater, all I could think of was, "how the hell am I supposed to continue my day after seeing that?"
The story follows a young woman named Harper, who has decided to rent a home in the village of Cotson in the far English countryside to emotionally heal after the death of her abusive husband, James. As the film progresses, we start to notice strange aspects about the village, more importantly, the people in it. There are several unique things about Men however, what sticks out most is the cast, or rather lack thereof. For a movie with about a dozen characters, there are only five actors, two of which are present for the majority of the runtime, being Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear. I find it difficult to think of a performance that impressed me more than Rory Kinnear playing an entire village of people, all with unique traits, appearances, motivations, and mannerisms. Jessie Buckley also gives one of the best performances of her career.
When it comes to the overall plot of Men, I choose to see it more as a metaphor than a concrete story in its own universe with its own laws. Men deals a lot with gender-specific trauma because Harper is a character who has been historically mistreated by the opposite sex. A glimpse of her backstory shows that her husband, James would invade her privacy, threaten to kill himself whenever she brought up divorce, and on one occasion, slapped her across the face, knocking her to the ground. After a particularly aggressive fight where James struck Harper, she kicked him out of their apartment. James proceeded to break into their upstairs neighbor's flat in an attempt to make his way back into their apartment by jumping to the balcony below. However, he never ended up making it, as he missed the balcony and fell all the way to the street below. It's a mystery to both the audience and Harper whether this was an accident or James intentionally threw himself off. The next time we see James, his corpse is sitting upright against the fence outside their building, his ankle broken, and his wrist impaled by a metal fence post. Although it's safe to say that these actions would be wrong no matter the gender of the abuser, Harper has left this relationship with a profound anxiety when it comes to men.
In the past few years the phrase "not all men" has been all too prevalent in conversations about gender violence. It seems that whenever women come forward to tell their stories of abuse or sexual assault at the hands of men, there are always a few who like to remind them that they "would never do that" or "you can't hate all men based on that." While of course the sentiment that not all men are bad people is true, there is an old anaology I'd like to bring to light. Let's say there is a big bowl of candy in front of you with 100 pieces in it. One of these pieces happens to be poisonous. Would you go anywhere near that bowl of candy? Of course it's not all men, but it's enough. And while a large portion of men would never dream of harming a woman, any cisgender male inherently benefits from the oppression of women. That's just the way it is.
All of the male characters in Men have some sort of evil in them, hidden or not. The characters Geoffrey, the Vicar, the Policeman are meant to represent the men that Harper believed she could trust before they showed their true colors. Geoffrey is the friendly owner of the manor she is staying in who is trying to run her over with a car by the end of the film, the Vicar initially provides a shoulder to cry on while Harper is coping with the death of James before essentially blaming his death on her. The Policeman is the one who helped her get rid of the naked intruder in her garden but ended up releasing him back into the public hours later, regardless of how frightened she may be. Samuel, the little boy symbolizes the misogynistic tendencies that are bored into young males' minds at a young age. Harper initially meets him in a church garden, wearing a cartoon woman mask, after she politely declines to play hide and seek with him, he calls her a "stupid bitch." It's clear from his costume and his attitude that he sees women as a commodity, something not entirely human. I believe he stands for sexist tendencies that can be stopped at an early age.
There is a certain Biblical/mythical aspect of Men that I find very interesting. At the very start we witness Harper eating an apple from the tree in the Manor's garden, representing the original sin of women in the Bible's Genesis. It's a subtle nod to how Harper is blamed for her husband's death the same way Eve was blamed for the original sin of man.
Men is an overall strange movie, but nothing can prepare you for the third act, when everything comes crashing down. I'll try not to spoil it here because it's genuinely some of the most suspenseful, shocking stuff I've seen on film in a very long time but if you know what I'm talking about, you'll know that it stands for the cycle of toxic masculinity. Every time a man decides to take advantage of a woman he is helping to perpetuate the cycle of abuse and make sure that a society that oppresses women stays present.
From the day it premiered, Men proved to be a very divisive movie for audiences everywhere. While some praised the social commentary and symbolism, others thought it was too heavy handed and that the studio had "out A24'd themselves." While I can absolutely understand the problems some people had with it, I can't help but admire Alex Garland and his crew for creating a film that subverts your expectations at every turn and makes you leave the theater in unshakeable awe.