Synopsis of Men, by Mary Woodbury
The following article contains spoilers.
Alex Garland’s Men is a fascinating folk horror classic that, while exalting the English countryside’s nature and beauty, also gazes sternly at patriarchy and religion. The cast is incredible. Jessie Buckley’s range of emotions and Rory Kinnear’s many faces enhance the weird and wonderful elements of the story. The movie has been called folk horror. By definition at Wikipedia, this genre has typical elements that include a rural setting and themes of isolation, religion, the power of nature, and the potential darkness of rural landscapes. Garland’s film has it all.
Power of Nature
Lesley Duncan’s Love Song, which plays while main character Harper Marlowe drives to a country villa, is a pleasant backdrop to the opening scene. Lush springtime vistas, such as large green meadows and dandelion seeds drifting in the wind, make the start of the movie seem like a whimsical, romantic getaway to rurality. The song is about love but also loss. It echoes the modern sentiments of hate and division caused by misinformation versus echoes of love, truth, and justice:
Love is the key we must turn
Truth is the flame we must burn
Freedom the lesson we must learn
Perhaps this movie wants to regenerate love, truth, and freedom, similar to how dandelion seeds in the wind give promise to new life. Dandelions going to seed are shown often in the movie. One is the background photo on Harper’s phone, and scenes of the blowing seeds happen upon Harper’s walks and reflections.
The movie starts as an ordinary journey to heal. Harper’s flashbacks of an argument with her husband and his subsequent jumping or falling to his death—a scene she watched out her window—haunts her. They had already talked about divorce, but he gaslighted and threatened her, and even physically abused her during an argument. Still, she cannot forget seeing him after the fall—dead, his ankle broken and misshapen and his hand and arm split by a fence spike.
The retreat house is beautiful. Five-hundred years old, it carries a history with it, including high wooden frames, beams, a fireplace, and more. I wasn’t sure if the house represented 500 years of patriarchy, which has been around for much, much longer; though, 500 years ago was when a few things happened—the Protestant Reformation, rejection of papal supremacy in the Catholic church, and the ex-communication of Martin Luther—so it could line up with a religious milestone. The owner of the house, Geoffrey, meets Harper upon her arrival and gives her a tour. He’s odd: creepily questioning her marital status and “jokingly” lecturing her for eating an apple, like Eve, from a tree in the front courtyard. It’s not the first time Harper is being watched without knowing it, symbolic of a sort of invasiveness that only becomes more unwelcome as the movie goes along. Kinnear, who plays Geoffrey, plays all the other men in the movie outside her husband James.
After settling into the house, Harper takes a walk in the surrounding forest and stops at one point as rain starts falling. After having been bombarded with memories of her husband dying, it seems that during this walk she brightens up. She’s amazed at the natural beauty of the place and the way the rain brings out vivid colors and life. She smiles, seemingly in an epiphany. She finds a large tunnel and is delighted at the way her echoes last longer and louder than usual. To me, this is where the weird begins to enter. She is able to project her voice in an echo-song and make new echoes that harmonize with the old ones. I thought about women whose voices are not heard; now hers is. In nature, it resonates. The soundtrack also takes on ominous tones during this time, foreboding of the appearance of a naked man Harper eventually notices at the other end of the tunnel. He’s been watching her too. Her retreat back to the house is frightful. She sees the naked man again at some ruins and feels that he is stalking her and is out to hurt her. When she reaches the house, she calls her friend Riley, and we see the naked man outside at various vantage points that Harper does not see. But eventually she loses her signal with Riley and notices he is there and is trying to get into the house. She calls the police; they arrest the man but say he seems harmless enough. A police woman talks with Harper and acknowledges her fears, sympathizing with her.
Isolation and Religion
After a bath to soothe her nerves, Harper takes a walk to the nearby village, Cotson, in Hertfordshire. Geoffrey had told her about a church and a pub there.
She visits the church first. The parish holds some clues about a couple historical pagan symbols, which may hint at some of Garland’s inspirations from nature and the role of women in the church and society. Upon walking into the church, Harper views a stone pulpit that has a strange face sculpted on it. Behind that are some modern day symbols of Christianity—like stained-glassed windows with Jesus and his disciples. If one was sitting in the wooden pews of the church, listening to a sermon, they would see only one side of the pulpit—which is the sculpted face of the Green Man, whose name and history are only guessed at among scholars. Once a man of nature, who possibly transformed through the ages into a god or a monster, he represents spring, renewal, and rebirth. His face is surrounded by vines, trees, and other foliage.
On the other side of the pulpit, which the congregation would not see—the side behind which the preacher stands—is a sculpture of a sheela na gig, art that has been seen across Europe and Ireland. The engraving shows an older woman, or crone, reaching down to spread her vulva to the world. Scholars note that it could be a symbol of protection, particularly when used as a part of the architecture of a building, such as a gargoyle. It could also represent fertility and the positive nature of rebirth or show the sexual side of women as evil and sinful. One theory states that sheela na gigs and Green Man art were put into churches to attract pagans to new ideologies. These pieces of art hold importance to the rest of the movie. Also, sheela na gigs may have been pagan, but the evolution of the crone is more complex, with females changing roles in society over time. The idea of matriarchal versus patriarchal societies is strongly hinted at in these symbols.
In the isolated church (she doesn’t know a vicar is watching her), Harper breaks down and wails at the memories of her husband’s death. She seems to be a woman of few words, but her echo songs and cries show full emotion. Outside of the chapel, Harper runs into two more males. One is a boy with a blond woman’s mask. He wants to play a game with her and calls her a bitch when she refuses; the younger actor’s face is morphed with Kinnear’s. She also meets a vicar, played by, you guessed it—Kinnear—seemingly understanding and sympathetic with her at first but then accusatory and rude about what he judges was her role in her husband’s death.
Unnerved by the preacher’s accusation, she heads to the pub. There, she finds a couple customers, a cop, and a bartender—all played by Kinnear. The cop says that the man stalking her has already been set free. The general overtone of the men at the pub is one of disgruntlement and judgment. Harper doesn’t even finish enjoying her gin and tonic before leaving. She returns to the villa, and that’s when things get even weirder.
Upon returning to the big house, Harper once again calls Riley, who is angry and wants to come for a visit to help her friend. As the cell signal is lost, Harper begins to hear noises outside. Fearing her stalker is back after having been released from jail, she checks things out. She sees the policeman outside and goes out to talk with him. He doesn’t reply. Then he disappears, and apples start falling from the tree. Another man comes into the yard yelling, and she slams the door. Lights go out when she a grabs kitchen knife. Glass breaks, and a chair seems to be thrown in the kitchen. A pounding at the door reveals that Geoffrey has heard her screaming and wonders what is wrong. He discovers a crow has flown through the window and has died and been impaired on the counter, in the grotesque manner her husband died. He asks Harper to not look as he puts the bird out of its misery, and then agrees to look around the property. Before leaving the house, he admits that when he was seven years old, his father insulted him, calling him a failed military man.
Echoes, like dandelion scenes and rebirths, haunt the soundtrack. Men appear, disappear, and reappear in the courtyard. It’s all surreal and dream-like. The naked man transforms into the Green Man, like the sculpture at the church, with thorns, leaves, and branches sprouting from his head and body. Flashbacks of her husband’s death punctuate the present-day weirdness. Green Man wants inside. As Harper closes the front door on him, he slides his hand through the mail slot and she knifes his hand. He pulls his hand out slowly, so the knife tears along his arm, wrist, and hand, ending up like James’ ripped hand when he died. The boy shows up, wanting to play hide-and-seek.
The vicar is also there, wanting in as well. He recites a poem, Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan”, says he’s a swan, and asks if she’s lost her virginity. Then he attempts to rape her and accuses her of being like a siren. He is frustrated and angry that she has control over him. I admit to looking the poem up and its relationship to the movie. Caitlan Cowan at PopPoetry says:
The poem describes an event from Greek mythology in which Zeus, in the form of a swan, rapes Leda, a Spartan princess. Leda later gives birth to Helen (of Troy), Clytemnestra, and twins Castor and Pollux. Yeats’s poem depicts the rape itself, then moves on to the interesting territory of history and power.
This poem reveals things evident in Men and in the history and power in our world. The men in the movie clearly show some generational trauma as well, including Geoffrey’s militant father’s expectations and the vicar’s feeling of inadequacies and lack of control—though we’re not sure where that stems from: I’m guessing from some weird stuff while growing up in a religious atmosphere. I mean, his only companion seems to be a boy and he is obviously sexually frustrated.
Harper attempts an escape in her car, but all hell breaks loose. She accidentally hits Geoffrey, who then rises from the ground and pushes her out of the car, and then tries to run her over multiple times. As this is happening, strange music crawls in and and the night sky seems to open up to a galactic carnival. Harper heads back to the house for safety. Finally, a certain willful determination overtakes her as she confronts the various men in the yard trying to get in. At one point, during this strange encounter with many men (or at least the same man over and over), she screams but no noise comes out. Unlike her voice resonating loudly in echoes and songs in nature, now her voice is not heard.
A strange, rolling sequence of men giving birth happens outside and follows Harper into the house. This sequence starts with the naked man, or Green Man. He falls to the ground, throws up, in pain–something referencing the Biblical story of Eve who must, after having eaten from the apple, experience pain in childbirth. He and the other men in the rolling sequence cannot walk due to their twisted ankles—their hands showing the same long rip down to the arm, the same one Harper’s husband had when he died. The naked Green Man’s belly is full, and he begins to give birth. Out of him comes the boy from the church, who has the same broken body parts. He screams and gives birth to another man, from his belly. The newly born is the vicar, who begins to crawl after Harper into the house. He is also in pain and gives birth through his shoulder to whom I think might be Geoffrey. Then he also gives birth, a breech birth, through his mouth (quite literally foot in mouth, which is just Geoffrey’s way), to Harper’s husband. James sits with her on the couch, and they talk a little. It’s somewhat anti-climatic. When she asks what he wants, he says “love”.
After the weird men sequence dissipates, Riley finally shows up and stands in the doorway. She is very pregnant. But there are no more rolling birth sequences. Harper smiles at her friend. At least I think it’s her friend. Perhaps it’s a sister, a cousin, even a lover? We don’t know.
Nature is powerful in the movie, and could be healing as well—almost is, except for the problem of the strange men ruining it at every turn. What could have been a simple, innocent, and relaxing retreat for Harper turned into a nightmare instead. Thus is the nature of folk horror, and I like the genre of storytelling because it is powerful and makes you think. Like weird fiction, it leaves you uncomfortable, and that’s the point. Comfort and ease can be lazy and non-productive, whereas discomfort can make one feel like changing something for the better. The movie seems to descend into the horror of the loss of nature as it has been dominated by men, basically.
Patriarchy and religion go hand in hand, too, as we drift further from a once wilder world. The Green Man and sheela na gigs were adopted by the early church possibly as a way of making pagans feel welcome, in order to draw more people in. But religion shifted toward man and gods rather than to the natural world, which was once more sacred. We see it in so many stories, such as the old gods in A Song of Fire and Ice versus the more corrupt, newer Seven.
The symbolism of the man/woman art in the movie’s church scene seems two-fold. One is that the sheela na gig is not seen from the view of the congregation, who only see the Green Man art. A man presents himself to his audience as powerful and good, like the Green Man, and similar to how he acted toward Harper at first. But the side not immediately seen (the sheela na gig) is considered deviant and evil. The religious man judges Harper’s female-ness and later tries to rape her to regain control he thinks he’s lost. It’s probably the closest he has come to a woman since standing next to the sheela na gig at the pulpit. And, second, the rolling birth sequence, to me, represents the evolution from nature to child to religion to patriarch (land owner) to whatever sense that Garland has of the modern man represented by James. That part was unclear to me. Maybe it doesn’t really mean anything, but the movie is called Men, and the men in the movie are all presented in a negative light.
The power of women—the renewing nature of women—is not as obvious in the church scene nor in patriarchy itself. It hides behind the pulpit. The reference to “Leda and the Swan” reinforces my feeling that Men is about the history and power of just that, men, and the ways in which evolution paints such a long, dark horrible history of them, which seems antithetical to the more natural powers of nature, birth, and renewal, commonly associated with female-ness. It’s a broad take on my part. I thought of my father as a loving and nurturing man when he was alive and also think of my husband as a fair, wise, and good person, unlike the men portrayed in this movie. But, given the continued subjugation of women around the world, with historically progressive steps moving backward again, I think if you allow it, Garland’s movie opens up the horror in a visceral way, nudging for change.