Warning: This article contains spoilers for “Men”
The films of writer-director Alex Garland – including 2014’s “Ex Machina” and 2018’s “Annihilation” – are known for their sci-fi horror premises, unusual settings and, above all, mind-bending finales. His third film “Men” elevates those trademarks to a new level, especially its gory, perplexing ending.
The nightmare begins when Harper (Jessie Buckley) rents a house in the English countryside, craving a respite from the city where her husband tragically died. But there’s no escape from her memories, nor the men who keep showing up out of nowhere. As these interactions grow increasingly frightening and bizarre, Harper comes to realize what the audience has perceived all along: none of these men are just another face in the crowd; they are the crowd. From the groundskeeper Geoffrey to a disturbed child to the naked man prowling the yard, all of them bear the same face (that of actor Rory Kinnear).
What does it all mean? What do these men have to do with Harper’s traumatic past? And how does that all tie together in the final sequence? Read on for a deep dive into all these questions and more.
But First: The Man
“Men” opens with a fragment of a scene that the film will return to several times: a bloody-nosed Harper and her husband James (Paapa Essiedu), mid-argument, bathed in intense orange light. Later, we learn that Harper has just told James she wants a divorce after about one year of marriage. He tries several tactics to get her to change her mind – begging, guilting, gaslighting – before threatening suicide. After he strikes Harper to the floor, she throws him out, saying she doesn’t care if he lives or dies. The next time she sees him, he’s on the other side of their living room window, plummeting multiple stories to his death (it’s not clear whether he jumped or fell).
In another dreamlike sequence, Harper finds his broken body outside: ankle bent at an unnatural angle, head bloodied, one arm spliced down the middle by a spiked railing. These specific injuries will become important later on in the story.
All the Gory Allegories
If the first key to understanding the ending is Harper’s individual story, the second is how it fits into a bigger picture of patriarchal violence. “Men” is full of allusions to original sin, the idea that every person carries on the transgression committed by Adam and Eve when Eve ate forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. This becomes literal when Harper eats an apple from the tree in the front yard upon arriving at the country house. “Mustn’t do that,” Geoffrey warns. “Forbidden fruit.” Though he says he’s kidding a moment later, this may very well be what sets off a chain reaction of punishing events.
All of Harper’s interactions serve as an extension of the theme that women are inherently to blame for the sins of men. A boy named Samuel wearing a creepy mask wants Harper to play hide and seek with him; when she says no, he calls her a “bitch.” The vicar who scolds him gives Harper a shoulder to cry on, then tells her that husbands will hit wives (i.e. “boys will be boys”), but she is the one responsible for James’ death. In a flashback to their argument, James appeals to religious morality to try to get her to stay, reminding her that they were married in a church. It’s no coincidence that James essentially dies by crucifixion, absolving himself from his failed marriage – and leaving Harper to pick up the pieces.
The connection between James and all of the other men is eventually inscribed in flesh. In the lead-up to the climax, Harper is spooked enough to allow her friend Riley (Gayle Rankin) to come stay with her in the country house. Suddenly she hears the kitchen window shatter and is convinced that someone has broken in. When Geoffrey comes to help, they find a bird on the counter, leg bent at the same angle as James’ ankle. Geoffrey twists its neck, and then, at Harper’s insistence, goes out into the yard to see if someone else is there.
But the house lights keep flickering out, and when they’re on again, Geoffrey is gone. What follows is a truly hellish sequence in which every iteration of Geoffrey – the vicar, the men from the bar, the police officer, Samuel, the naked man (now bleeding and pierced with leaves and twigs) – chases after her. What they want – sex, love, to kill her – remains unclear.
Early in the rotation, one of the men tries to grab her through the mail slit in the front door. Harper grabs a knife and punctures his arm right below the elbow, and the creature painstakingly pulls his arm back out until the limb is entirely split in two. Every version of the man will bear this same deformity, mirroring the way James’ arm was impaled when he died. The connotation is that this is Harper’s fault, even though she was acting in self-defense.
“What Is It That You Want?”
After Harper tries to flee the house, she accidentally hits Geoffrey with her car. He then overtakes the car and chases her back to the front yard. Cue the most flagrantly bizarre sequence of the film: the naked prowler man grows an enormous belly, a vagina opens up and he gives birth to himself, over and over again. Each of the slimy beings crawls in Harper’s direction, but they don’t get far before they start to give birth to their own progeny. And each one bears the exact same injuries as James and the bird (broken ankle, arm severed to the elbow).
Howling in pain, the last Geoffrey-faced man gives horrifying birth (foot-first!) to who else but James, naked and marred by the same injuries from his death. He takes a seat next to Harper (who is holding an ax) and explains where these wounds came from. James also says he saw her as he was falling. Eventually, Harper asks: “James, what is it that you want?” “Your love,” he replies, and she says, “Yeah.” The scene cuts to black.
Midway through the credits, Riley (who is revealed to be pregnant) arrives to the country house the next morning. In the backyard, Harper is staring at a leaf, presumably the same kind that was stuck to Naked Prowler’s head.
What to make of this ending?
One interpretation is that James’ demand for Harper’s unconditional love and forgiveness – without taking accountability for his own behavior – is infantile in nature. Rather than treat his partner as an equal, James is driven solely by his own needs, similar to a baby’s relationship with its mother. That dynamic is visually represented by the “men” giving birth to themselves over and over again. Their anguished cries seem to parallel the way a baby cries out for its mother, as does the way that each man reaches out for Harper. By the end, this reaching no longer feels malicious, but a naked striving for her affection and attention. James appears to corroborate this when he explains that Harper’s love is really all that he’s after.
The way that James and his male aliases use terror and guilt to trap Harper in the relationship can be seen as a paragon for abusive men. In giving each man the same face, and using biblical imagery, the film subverts the idea of “original sin.” Instead of all women innately bearing the sins of Eve, perhaps all men innately bear the violent impulses and misogynistic ideas instilled in them by the patriarchy. This reading of the film (gleaned from the trailer or the title alone) has already incited angry responses across the internet from the “Not All Men” variety.
That’s not the only meaning to be taken away from “Men,” but it’s certainly the most cogent theory. For all of its on-the-nose metaphors about gender roles, the female lead is largely beyond reach. Most of what we know about Harper is intertwined with her abusive marriage, save for short exchanges with her friend Riley. She proves extraordinarily capable at defending herself against her attackers, but that occupies so much of the film that there isn’t time for meaningful exploration of her character. Unless, of course, that is the point.
“Men” premieres in theaters on May 20.