If you just finished watching Alex Garland's new folk-horror film "Men," you might need a little time to process it. At least that's what Garland hopes.
"Most people watch a film and they just kind of shrug and send an email or go get a beer or whatever," the British writer-director says. "But if anyone is provoked by this film, hopefully they can query the provocation."
On the surface, the story of "Men" seems as simple as its title: A woman named Harper (Jessie Buckley) retreats to the pastoral English countryside following the death of her estranged husband (Paapa Essiedu). There, she finds herself terrorized and manipulated by a series of men, including a naked stalker, a gaslighting vicar and a creepy local policeman — all of whom bear an uncanny resemblance to one another (they're all played by actor Rory Kinnear).
"There's a fable quality to the film," Buckley says. "It's like a kind of fairy tale."
But like Garland's previous films, 2014's "Ex Machina" and 2018's "Annihilation," "Men" has a lot on its mind: themes of misogyny and toxic masculinity, pagan symbols, literary allusions. The film is dense with references to everything from Ulysses to the Bible to Yeats to Agamemnon to the Green Man and sheela na gig, mysterious ancient carvings found on churches throughout Europe. "If anybody wanted to start unpacking it, they would find some interesting avenues," Garland says.
Like many a final-girl horror film, from "Halloween" to "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "Men" climaxes with Harper facing off against the monster who has been tormenting her. But this hallucinatory and surreal final confrontation is anything but typical, upending whatever genre expectations the audience may have going in.
In the film's final sequence, Harper, having been thwarted in her attempt to escape from the cottage, finds herself menaced (or men–aced) by the various figures who have stalked and gaslit her throughout the film, each being birthed out of another in a graphic and stomach-churning orgy of David Cronenberg-style body horror.
This succession of grotesque births — with each successive incarnation bearing the same gruesome torn arm that Harper's husband had after falling (or jumping) to his death — finally produces Harper's husband. He sits beside her on a couch and, laying a final, manipulative guilt trip on her, tells her that all he ever really wanted was for her to love him.
"The monster's big final moment has a lot of patheticness built into it," Garland says. "If a guy is violent, he can have a weird mixture of something intimidating and pathetic. But there might also be something touching and just kind of honest in that moment as well."
While Harper has been plagued by grief and guilt over her husband's death — and is cruelly blamed for it by the vicar — the film deliberately leaves the question of whether he died accidentally or by suicide unresolved. Indeed, Garland says there is no real answer.