Men Is an Idea That Haunted Alex Garland for 15 Years

We discuss the horror elements of the Green Man, and man in general, with Alex Garland ahead of his new A24 film: Men.

Rory Kinnear in A24's Men
Photo: A24

It’s been 15 years since writer-director Alex Garland first put pen to paper and attempted to tackle an abstract horror in the back of his mind. The shape of it had already been given physical form, of course, many times over during the last several millennia. Indeed, Garland credits the germ of the idea that led to Men to the enigmatic face of the Green Man: an ancient sculpted figure some speculate was once worshiped as a deity.

“There’s two bits of imagery that are used and used again,” Garland says about recurring stone figures in Men. “One is called the Green Man and one is called Sheela na gig, and they’re bits of imagery you find in many churches but they predate medieval times, and they’re all over Europe and in fact stretch beyond Europe, and they’re interesting because they’re powerful bits of iconography and they provoke a response in one form or another.”

And yet, as Garland points out, there is no definitive explanation for what the Green Man represented in a half-forgotten age, or why medieval architects later incorporated him into so many Christian structures, particularly in Britain. Thus Garland began applying his own psychological connotations to the object as a figure of masculine lust—and the way its leering gaze mirrors a horror that’s stalked women for just as many millennia.

“I have written three or four scripts using that iconography over the last 15 years,” Garland explains, “but this was the first time where I got it to the point of actually making it into a film.”

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In that film, Jessie Buckley stars as Harper, a woman who’s recently lost her husband (Paapa Essiedu) and has decided to heal by spending a week in the country. Yet everywhere she goes, and everyone she meets, appears to be a variation on the same man: a leering and hovering presence played in so many flavors by Rory Kinnear. Intriguingly, during a roundtable Den of Geek participated in, Garland teased there are multiple ways to interpret the anxiety conjured by Kinnear’s various performances.

When asked why Kinnear plays all the male characters in the film (besides Harper’s husband in flashbacks), Garland says, “The key thing actually was to pose that question. So you have one character playing all these roles, and it’s obviously not arbitrary. It’s obviously a decision… So one question might be does Harper see all men as the same? Because neither Harper nor the film ever remark on it, ever. Only the viewer is left to remark on it. So is it that Harper sees all men as the same whilst they are in fact different or is it all men are the same and she does not see that? They’re two questions that sound very similar but have completely different inferences.”

Even so, both seem to point toward the same dread provided by a patriarchal world where all men, in one form or another, are seeking to control Harper to insidious ends. This is the base horror that drives Garland’s vision.

“I was trying to make a film about a sense of horror,” Garland explains. “That’s what I think this film is, and that could be interpreted many different ways or lead you different ways.”

It is thus also more abstract than Garland’s previous efforts, although the director sees it still as being a piece with Ex Machina (2015) and Annihilation (2018).

Says Garland, “I think Annihilation is full of surrealism. I think Ex Machina is full of surrealism. There’s a disco sequence within it, which is a surrealist beat.”

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With Men, Garland intends to simply broaden those impulses while exploring the grossly imbalanced power dynamics between men and women in a horror setting. The film is of course not subtle about that; it’s right there in the title. And the filmmaker is acutely aware of the fact that he is a man telling a feminine story about male menace.

“We gave ourselves a rule,” says Garland, “which is our job is to think about it as hard as we are able to think about it, and sort of investigate it and discuss it between ourselves, and really apply ourselves, and bring other people in who are not directly involved in making the film—but people that we trust—[to give us feedback].”

But at the end of the day, Garland felt no restrictions about tackling these real world horrors, particularly with partners as game as Buckley and Kinnear who come close to exploring every unspoken facet of male and female interactions. Together, this triumvirate attempts to visualize something akin to what Garland feels while looking at the Green Man: an inarticulate dread and horror aimed toward women.

“The dream is that somebody watches this film and does not simply forget about it as they are walking out of the cinema,” Garland says. “And films are often weirdly forgettable. Somebody will say ‘have you seen that?’ and I go, ‘Yeah, I’ve seen that.’ And then they say, ‘Did you like the bit when—’ and I already don’t know what they’re talking about.”

But with Men, he hopes the mysteries he presents, beginning with Kinnear in all those roles, triggers a deeper reaction.

Says Garland, “I’m not saying that question is posed in that way to make the film more memorable. It’s more that I want it to stay alive—not to be remembered as a film, but as a participant in a conversation.”

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A24 releases Men only in theaters on May 20 in the U.S. and on June 1 in the UK.