"It was quite important that Jessie's character does not actually know what happened to him," Garland says. "So because the character doesn't have a definitive answer to that, I never had one."
In employing and twisting imagery of birth, Garland was both drawing upon the ancient fertility iconography of sheela na gigs — centuries-old carvings showing women displaying oversized genitalia — and exploring people's discomfort with the process of childbirth itself.
"A lot of the imagery people respond to in that sequence actually should be very un-frightening," Garland says. "There isn't a single person on the planet who didn't arrive either by vaginal birth or cesarean. But some of what people get freaked out [about in that sequence] has to do with that absolutely fundamental and basic imagery, not with a weird scene in a horror flick. And that's odd."
For Kinnear, shooting the final sequence was deeply unpleasant. "It was like a week and a half of night shoots, and you're cold and covered in goo, so you knew you might as well commit to it wholeheartedly," the actor says. "I wanted to make sure that every time a new character emerged, they had a new attitude and had a need for something from Harper. Each character was nonverbally vocalizing this primal need."
Instead of running away screaming or attempting to kill her tormentor, Harper — like the viewer — finds herself strangely transfixed by the series of births. "Seeing a body morph like that, kind of half-human and half-monster — it's like, what the hell is going on?" Buckley says. "It's really fascinating. You want to turn away but you're afraid that you're going to miss something as well. She's not in a state of horror, which I think is a kind of interesting thing at that point."
In the film's final scene, we see Harper sitting alone outside the cottage the next day, as her friend Riley, who is revealed to be pregnant, arrives to make sure she is OK. Having survived the traumatic ordeal, Harper gives her friend a small, knowing smile, as if to say, "Men — what are you going to do?"
"The most important things in the ending sequence, from my point of view, are not to do with what Harper is reacting to but with the way that she reacts," Garland says. "So not the birth, not the question or the blame or anything posed by her partner, but Jessie's performance as Harper. It's less to do with the initial shock value and more to do with how the protagonist is behaving. Her fear level and what was going on internally was something we talked about a lot. The smile between Harper and Riley at the end — that, at least for me, is where more of the interest lies."
Just before the end credits roll, the film's title finally appears onscreen in what Garland intended as a kind of dark punch line.
"It's possible that something can be funny and serious at the same time," says Garland. "I think the usage of the title at the end of the film is a mixture between something which is grim and very serious but also kind of dumb and silly and irreverent. All of that felt neatly encapsulated in that word."
So is the film truly arguing that all men, in their hearts, are equally capable of monstrous behavior toward women? Or is it merely exploring those fears as a kind of #MeToo-era provocation?
Ultimately, Garland says it's up to the viewer to decide based on their own experiences and preconceptions.
"I've heard interpretations of this film from different people who are perfectly intelligent and reasonable that are wildly different by 180 degrees," he says. "And that is not really a reflection on the film. It's a reflection of them."
———©2022 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.