Harper saw him fall. She watched James from the other side of her window, her nose still bleeding. Watched as her husband—arms flailing, mouth open, eyes looking right at her—dropped from the floor above. Watched as he died.
The fall is not in question. But did he fall on purpose?
They fought that day. She said she was divorcing him. He threatened to kill himself if she did. “You will have to live with it on your conscience,” James told her.
And that emotional blackmail, Harper told him—the fights, the blame, the drama—is “exactly why we have to get divorced.”
The fight escalated. James threw a fist. Harper threw him out of the apartment. He ran upstairs, apparently hoping to gain access to their shared apartment from the balcony above.
But then he slipped.
Or let go.
He fell. Harper saw him. And Harper sees him again and again. When she dreams. When she wakes. When she cuts a grapefruit or takes a bath. She sees his arms. Legs. Mouth. Eyes. Falling. Falling.
Harper knows she needs to move on—find a way past this terrible, terrifying tragedy. So she rents a house in the English countryside—a full two weeks of solitude in what looks like a British postcard. Just what she needs.
Geoffrey, the property’s owner, proudly walks her around the house and garden. It’s 500 years old in spots. It was around when Shakespeare wrote. Perhaps even before.
“Where’s Hubby?” he asks in mid-ramble, remembering Harper signed the papers as a Mrs. Harper, flustered, she says she’s not gotten around to changing her name just yet.
“I implied I was divorced,” she confesses to a friend over the phone that night.
That friend, Riley, offers to come up and stay with her. Perhaps it’s not a great idea (Riley suggests) to spend so much time all alone in this old English home. Perhaps she needs company.
But Harper says no: She needs to deal with her life as it is now. She needs to move on. She needs, most especially, to stop being afraid—of questions, of the future, of what happened.
But as Harper’s “vacation” trundles on, she soon realizes it’s no escape from fear. She has reason to fear—reason, in fact, to be terrified.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
Harper’s idyllic vacation spot proves to be anything but idyllic. It takes some horrific turns, and viewers will naturally root for her as she deals with all manner of … um, challenges. But other than Harper simply trying to survive her holiday with both body and mind intact, we don’t really see she showcase any glorious morals or deliver strong lessons or whatnot.
In fact, the most admirable character here (at least for our purposes) might be her friend, Riley. She does what she can to keep Harper’s spirits up via their frequent phone calls. When things start to get really weird, she heads down to the vacation home herself.
While it’s not always clear cut why characters do what they do, we might give a little nod of approval to Geoffrey in one scene. While Geoffrey doesn’t see the men whom Harper says are trying to get into the house, he does search the estate and grounds—trying to be a conscientious rental owner and protective (if patronizing) force. Of all the men we meet in Men, Geoffrey seems—at least initially—to be the least offensive.
When Harper first arrives at the property, she plucks an apple from a tree in the garden. Geoffrey tells her she shouldn’t do such things. “Forbidden fruit,” he tells her. He quickly amends the statement as a joke—but it does set the table for the movie’s oppressive spirituality.
Men has a lot to say about how women are treated by men, and writer/director Alex Garland seems to take aim at some aspects of the Christian church. The scene above is intended to draw viewers’ attention to the Garden of Eden, wherein Eve was the first to partake of the forbidden fruit and, soon, to convince Adam to take a bite, too. Some secular readers argue that the scene is evidence that men have been demonizing women from, literally, the beginning. The woman’s being blamed for the fall of humankind, they say. And indeed throughout the film, we see plenty of men blame Harper for what are often their own problems.
That accusation of ordained blame continues when Harper visits a church. There, in its sun-kissed confines, Harper wrestles with what happened to James (who, incidentally, also told Harper that they couldn’t get divorced because of the promises they made to each other at the altar).
After this time of painful soul-searching, she exits and is confronted by the church rector. He listens, apparently sympathetically, to Harper’s story, as a cross lies sideways against a wall. Then he puts his hand on her thigh and asks, “You must wonder why you drove him to it.” Later, the priest turns far more lecherous, again blaming Harper for his own sinful desires.
But the Christian elements we see here are joined by more pagan themes as well.
The church’s ancient stone lectern, for instance, bears two curious stone carvings. The side facing what would be the congregation is the face of a man made of leaves. The figure, apparently a representation of the Green Man, was a popular motif in Medieval churches. It represents rebirth (as personified by spring), even though many scholars believe the image itself predates Christian influence.
On the other side of the lectern, facing the Christ-adorned, stained glass window, is found an even more curious carving: a naked woman in a sexually explicit pose. Similar carvings, believe it or not, are also sometimes seen in Medieval churches, though scholars don’t agree on why they’re there. Some believe these obscene carvings were a warning against lust; others argue that they serve as wards against evil; still others point to the similarities between these carvings and pre-Christian depictions of fertility goddesses.
These two carvings echo recurring themes and symbols we find throughout the film. Nature becomes a force of its own here, taking on a certain pagan power, and a man seems to transform into a manifestation of a Green Man. The other carving harkens to Men’s inescapable feminist themes.
One of the men in Men is completely and perpetually naked. We see him—all of him—plenty in this film. He’s as inescapable presence for the audience as he is for Harper—even though all of us might very much wish he wasn’t around at all. We also see other men naked (though most of the film’s many men are played by the same actor, Rory Kinnear).
Another man confesses that he’s been having all sorts of fantasies about Harper, telling her that he imagines her doing anything and everything. (When he tells her about his fantasies, he’s suggestive rather than descriptive.)
The female carving we mentioned in our Spiritual Elements section graphically depicts a stylized woman’s bare breasts and genitals.
Harper takes a bath, and we see her a couple of times from the shoulders up.
Here’s an extra spoiler warning for you, given that most elements in this section are spoilers. Also of note, some of the descriptions of content in this section are graphic and disturbing.
Harper is attacked by several men during the film. One tries to rape her. Another tries to run her over with a car before crashing it into a pillar. Her husband slugs her in the face during their fight (causing her nose to bleed), and she’s repeatedly chased and harried throughout the latter stages of the film.
But Harper inflicts her own damage. She hits one guy with a car, and the fellow goes flying. (He survives, but he suffers some injuries.) She stabs her would-be rapist in the gut.
But without question, the most grotesque injury occurs when a guy tries to grab Harper through a mail slot: Harper stabs her attacker in the forearm, apparently hitting a spot between the arm’s two main bones (the ulna and the radius). She leaves the knife embedded in the guy—pinning the arm, essentially, inside the door courtesy the mail slot. So the attacker, trying to free himself, pulls the knife through the arm (think of a lumber rip cut) and, when the knife gets hung up on the myriad bones in the hand, continues to pull and hammer until the entire forearm and hand has been split in two.
Other men (manifestations of that same man above) bear the same injury: One tries to hold Harper to him with his severed appendage—his split hand simultaneously touching Harper’s left and right shoulder.
Harper sees James’ broken body after his fall. His hand has been impaled and ripped by an iron fence spike. His right leg has obviously snapped in two. The body is covered in blood.
Other men Harper deals with also have suffered broken right legs in the same place. Some try to walk on their shattered legs before thinking better of it.
A naked man is covered in cuts when we first see him, but his injuries (at least partly self-inflicted) grow more grotesque with each new sighting. In one scene, he slices new wounds in his face and sticks leaves into the open cuts. Later, he seems to be sprouting thorns across his shoulders and back, and the leaves are apparently growing.
A dead dear is shown without an eyeball, and a dandelion seed gently floats into the empty socket as the camera enters also. When the camera withdraws, the deer carcass is far more desiccated: The face is covered in maggots. A bird breaks his wing after apparently flying through a window. Someone snaps the animal’s neck, and someone else seems to turn the bird carcass into something of a puppet (wearing the mask of a blond female). Harper’s friend, Riley, talks about slicing off the privates of Harper’s assailants with an ax. Harper screams underwater.
And now we come to Men’s strangest sequence, and that’s saying something. Note: This involves childbirth, which I realize is typically neither sexual nor violent. But in this case, I’d argue it is grotesque and anything but natural.
The men in Men begin to give birth: They grow the female anatomy needed to expel the beings inside them—not babies, but other men (though one appears to be a young teen boy). And while sometimes these vaginas appear where you’d expect them to appear, not always. One opens on a man’s back. The birthing process is clearly painful in all circumstances and seems to kill the man giving birth (the corpse looks more like a husk than a body), and the newly born men are covered in blood—in immediate discomfort as they become pregnant themselves to repeat the cycle.
Nearly 30 f-words and two s-words. We also hear “b–ch,” “h—” and the British profanity “bloody.” God’s name is misused once.
Harper drinks wine a time or two.
Men is a complex movie to parse. But the film is clearly mulling how men treat women (often badly, in the film’s eyes), and one possible “message” some might find in the film is that men are … well, just big jerks. And the birthing scene could represent how unhealthy attitudes and interactions are continually spawned generationally—with men (and perhaps institutions run by men, the movie suggests) training men to treat women as objects or scapegoats.
Give Director Alex Garland credit: He’s not afraid to make challenging films.
Garland’s previous directorial efforts, Ex Machina and Annihilation, are interesting—filled with complex and sometimes conflicting ideas. If one categorizes true art as creations that challenge, inspire debate, and make you wonder what the creator was trying to say when he/she made it, Men would qualify. There’s no clear takeaway here, but rather a nightmare narrative that points viewers toward vague-but-important concepts. Men feels freighted with gender-related questions and begs the audience to bring its own answers.
But whatever the film may ask of its viewers, Plugged In would ask you to turn your attention elsewhere.
Weird is one thing. Weird conjoined with oodles of nudity and buckets of blood and scads of obscene images … well, that’s something else again. This movie doesn’t tiptoe into its R-rating. It sprints, like a serial killer on the chase, straight past the R and looks for another door to hurtle through.
And as Harper herself might tell us, some doors should just stay locked.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.