The Empty Symbolism of Men’s Ending

Photo: A24

Alex Garland’s work has long flirted with body horror: the fractal doppelgängers of Annihilation. Domnhall Gleason slicing open his forearm, no longer sure if he’s human or android, in Ex Machina. But Men makes the fascination explicit, in an all-out attack that blends the anxiety of a home-invasion thriller with the goop and gore of body horror. Even by the standards of the genre that made David Cronenberg famous, the ending of Men is outrageous in its audacity. It’s certainly memorable, even if you come away with no more profound an impression than simply “What the fuck?”

First, the menacing male figures — all played by Rory Kinnear — that have been trailing Harper (Jessie Buckley) throughout the film swarm the country home where she’s holed up and terrified for her life. Blindly stabbing at her attackers through the mail slot of her front door, Harper wounds one of them with a kitchen knife. The man’s hand and forearm split down the middle around the knife, in an eerie visual echo of the injuries her husband James (Paapa Essiedu) sustained when he jumped from their high-rise balcony and died. James’s death by suicide at the beginning of the film is what prompted Harper to retreat to the countryside in the first place — ironically, she was hoping to take some time to heal. Now she’s being traumatized all over again.

Harper manages to escape and flees across the estate’s lush front lawn, which is littered with apples in a nod to Adam and Eve — a story whose misogynist overtones resonate throughout the film. Like millennia of Christian teachings that blame women for the fall of man, the hatred of women in Men feels too big, and too deeply rooted, to fight on an individual level. Harper experiences this futility and helplessness throughout the film, and again when another of the titular Men, this one behind the wheel of a car, corrals her back inside.

Just when it seems like the battle has subsided, Harper (Buckley) gingerly opens the front door to find a monstrous version of the Green Man, an ancient British fertility god whose image also reoccurs throughout, standing in front of her. The hulking figure begins to stretch and morph, his jaundiced skin ripping into ragged orifices, out of which crawl variations on the archetypes Kinnear has been evoking throughout the film: a sneering landlord. An insolent child. A contemptuous vicar. This bizarre “birth” repeats itself, contorting what was once a recognizable human shape into a fleshy vortex of errant limbs and viscous fluids as Harper watches in horror.

As it stretches and morphs into terrifying shapes, the creature cruelly mimics another of James’s injuries, snapping its ankle as it plunges toward her. Then, the most shocking reveal of all: James himself, reborn and coated in clear, sticky goo from head to toe. Unmoored, Harper flops down on the couch next to him in a grotesque parody of the domestic intimacy they once shared. With exhaustion in her voice, she asks him what he wants from her. “I want your love,” he says.

Originally, the ending of Men was described in the script simply as a series of “mutations,” and Garland says that Rob Bottin’s special-effects work in John Carpenter’s The Thing was a touchstone in early conversations about the scene. The team also explored transformations in which “bones elongated under flesh,” as seen in Rick Baker’s Oscar-winning makeup for An American Werewolf in London. Next was a progression where “at one point, we split a man’s face open, like flower petals, and as they open up, there’s the face of a child inside them.” Eventually, a viewing of Attack on Titan over a holiday break prompted Garland to take the scene in its ultimate direction, inspired by the show’s unusual, unselfconscious approach to nudity and the human body.

But while the sequence is charged with a panic-inducing wrongness, its imagery is based in human biology. The morphing, roiling rolls of flesh, which Essiedu says were coated in banana juice to mimic birth fluids, stretch to a point that seems impossible. But so do vaginas when a baby’s head passes through them in mid-delivery. “Tapping into the weird dissonance of people’s instinctive, but also meaningless sense of shock” when they see the physical realities of childbirth “felt appropriate,” Garland adds.

The imagery also has cinematic precedents Garland wasn’t consciously referencing. The 1989 horror satire Society climaxes with “the shunting,” a surrealistic orgy where the yuppie elite of Beverly Hills contort and congeal themselves into a sticky jumble of communal tissue in a manner not unlike the reborn men in Garland’s film. The creature’s long body expands and contracts, like the Kaonashi, a.k.a. No-Face, in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away after it gorges itself on bathhouse snacks. And Takashi Miike’s surreal 2003 yakuza film Gozu features a gory scene in which a woman gives birth to a full-grown adult man that’s used to similarly shocking, if less metaphorical, ends.

Speaking of — what is the metaphor here? It seems like there should be one, given the amount of striking imagery throughout the film. The Green Man himself represents rebirth; he is a pre-Christian symbol adopted by modern neo-pagans as a leafy manifestation of seasonal fertility and the arrival of spring. Garland twists this usually benevolent figure into something more sinister and predatory: Leaves sprout out of Kinnear’s forehead accompanied by blood, and rage. He becomes a reminder of the death that is necessary to feed new life.

The Green Man is accompanied by Sheela-na-gig, another symbol of uncertain origin that’s often carved as decoration into the stone walls of English churches. (In Men, she first appears opposite the Green Man on a baptismal font.) As Garland notes, “it’s interesting that those carvings survived so well,” given that Sheela-na-gig is depicted as a naked woman holding open her vulva to show her vaginal opening to the world. Garland finds it miraculous that these images were not destroyed during, say, the prudish Victorian era, adding that “it’s almost as if unconsciously people were thinking it’s wrong to cover that [image]. That it’s saying something true.”

But what about the film’s most on-the-nose theme: the conflict between men and women? Here’s where it all sort of falls apart.

In the climax of the film, a threatening male figure gives birth to more threatening male figures, before landing on a seemingly harmless man whom Harper knows intimately. That would seem to suggest that male violence begets male violence, poisoning an entire gender to the extent that no man is untouched by misogynist hatred. “Yes, all men,” in other words.

But what about these men’s insinuations to Harper throughout the movie, their suggestions that James’ death was her fault? “You must wonder why you drove him to it,” a village vicar in a pageboy wig says to her at one point. Even James proves to be both desperate and manipulative, threatening to kill himself if she leaves him — and then following through on the threat. As a dramatization of the misogynist tendency to blame men’s actions on women — the same tendency that made Eve responsible for Adam eating from the tree of knowledge — the movie contains a kernel of emotional truth. But what does it have to say about this state of affairs beyond, as Angelica Bastién wrote in her review of the movie, “Damn, misogyny is crazy, right?”

Men does point to some potential theories for what’s behind this baseline hostility, but none are developed enough to tie together the film’s many symbolic and thematic threads. The fact that it culminates in a hideous, threatening depiction of a man giving birth points to a gender-essentialist (and very Freudian) interpretation: Men hate women because they’re jealous of women’s ability to give birth. But there’s nothing else in these men’s behavior to suggest they’re jealous of Harper.

Or perhaps it’s a ritualistic sort of thing, where a woman must be sacrificed to keep the cycle going a lá The Wicker Man, or that famous South Park episode about Britney Spears. But again, a question remains: Why Harper?

And when she sits on the steps of the estate at the end of the film, having seemingly escaped the hand of cosmic fate by simply being nice to her sticky, undead husband, she greets her friend Riley (Gayle Rankin), who turns out to be heavily pregnant, with a weak smile. As Garland and others have pointed out, the monsters in Men don’t gain strength from their attacks, but get more fragile and pathetic as they go along. Has her encounter with these needy, desperate men drained Harper of her life force as well? Or is she simply anticipating Riley’s disbelief when she tells her what she saw the night before?

These contradictory, incomplete interpretations come to no definitive conclusion, leaving the viewer with more questions than answers. For her part, Buckley thinks that this is the point; in press notes, the actress is quoted saying, “I see the film as part of the intense conversation between men and women we are living through right now. So much has happened politically and socially in the past few years, and I see Men as a provocation on all that rather than an answer.”

If this is the case, then the film’s bravura ending may actually be a liability. Men is laden with symbolism, much of it provocative and highly gendered, including the ending’s outrageous images of monstrous birth. But by failing to go beyond their surface-level associations and make a coherent statement on the relationship between misogyny and monsters, Men’s extreme transformations function more like a sleight-of-hand trick: a distraction from the fact that there’s no real there there.

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The Empty Symbolism of Men’s Ending