What Led to Men?

What Led to Men?

Mazin Saleem


As celebrated a filmmaker as Alex Garland’s become, it’s easy to forget he started out a celebrated novelist. His debut was the zeitgeisty 90s bestseller The Beach; then came his difficult second thriller The Tesseract, which introduced a yen for trippy ideas; then The Coma, with illustrations by his father, a cartoonist for the broadsheet papers. You might assume this storied background explains why his non-literary works have so many literary references. But they don’t come from the old habits of a former novelist; neither are they a screenwriter’s pretentious nods at higher-brow texts. They’re part of Garland’s cinematic method, that of intertextuality. How and why he uses references are cues on how to take a film like Men

In Men he incorporates the poetry of Yeats and the imagery of Northern European folklore, and alludes to Greek myths and maybe the writings of Doris Lessing, Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis (not to mention all his cinematic references). And these aren’t subtly woven in: one character declaims a sonnet, while expressionistic cutaways to pagan carvings haunt the film. When an artwork references so many others like this, it reminds you that it too is an artwork, a man-made construction you must delineate to understand, not a ‘slice of life’ to experience. Since Garland has emphasised Men’s distance from realism in such a manner, we can’t take anything we see in it literally. 

Take the film’s dominant horror element. Our heroine is Harper (Jessie Buckley), a widow who should’ve been a divorcee. After the ambiguous death of her husband James (Paapa Essiedu)—either he had a fall, or he committed suicide like he said he would if she left—she drives out of London for a healing country holiday at what’ll prove to be more a Scare BnB. There she encounters even more disturbing men: first is her landlord, Geoffrey, played by Rory Kinnear, followed in besieging succession by a Homeless Man ( Kinnear), a Policeman (Kinnear), a Schoolboy (Kinnear), a Priest (Kinnear), a Pub Landlord (Kinnear), some local Louts (Kinnears). Harper is embarrassed, frightened, offended, and attacked by these men but, from the outset, she never acknowledges they look alike. 

Had she done, the film might’ve been offering a plot-based explanation for its departure from reality: the men are clones, say, or doppelgängers, or she’s suffering a post-traumatic delusion or under a magic spell. But the only other character who interacts with the men, a Policewoman (Sarah Twomey), also doesn’t react in any way that acknowledges or disputes their lookalikeness. 

So how are we to take them? Garland writes our neediness for clarification into the film as a joke: in one scene a 999 responder asks Harper to “Explain what’s happening please.” Men won’t, at least not through dialogue, but that’s not the same as it being meaningless—only that its meaning has to be read from the way the film’s told. It’s this form that makes the film non-realist, as with a fable, say, or newspaper cartoon, more so than its supernatural content of multiple Kinnears. As with his cultural references, Garland uses the supernatural in Men expressionistically.

Hence why he’s taken the cliché “all men are the same” literally, then takes it further. Along with their Kinnearness, what the men have in common is a conflict with the film’s heroine. Plummy Geoffrey patronises her. The Homeless Man stalks her out of a forest tunnel. The Policeman she calls neither serves nor protects but distrusts her. The Schoolboy she meets in a churchyard asks her to play but when she declines calls her a bitch like some sort of Boys’ Rights Activist. The church’s Priest, to whom Harper confesses her guilt about her husband, only guilts her further while getting handsy. By the last half hour the Louts are openly chasing her down.

All the men are played by the same man because they’re not different men so much as Man (and a particular one at that). With each of his manifestations Kinnear acts out another negative side to this archetype, till we reach the archetype himself. In the film’s horrific last act the Homeless Man returns transformed: when he’d stalked Harper out the forest he’d been naked; next we see him body-modding himself with twigs; by the final showdown he’s become the fully sprouted, leaf-bearded Green Man: pagan symbol of fertility, creation and rebirth in the male aspect. 

The Green Man then shows Harper his creations, birthing the first in a Russian doll succession of the men we’ve seen in the film so far, leading back to a bloodied incarnation of her dead husband James. This protean aspect had already been foreshadowed: the silhouetted figure Harper saw down the forest tunnel wore a jacket while the Homeless Man who followed her out was wearing nothing. What does it mean, though, for these men to change into or out of each other?

In Garland’s TV show DEVS a character quotes Larkin’s poem “Aubade” (misattributed by the show’s tech-bro CEO to Shakespeare). Men’s body-horror birth sequence is like another nod to Larkin: man hands on misogyny to man, it deepens like a coastal shelf. Before the birth sequence, a tree outside the country house sheds all its fruit in one go: another cliché Garland renovates by taking it literally: “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” For Kinnear isn’t just acting out different types of bad men but what led to them being this way: each other. And why does Garland depict that chain reaction so gruesomely, including as it does a breach-birth via Kinnear’s mouth? Earlier, Geoffrey, to excuse his macho foolhardiness in going to investigate a noise at night, tells Harper how when he was only seven-years-old, his father told him, “You have all the makings of a failed military man.” Alongside hand-me-down misogyny, men lead to men through cruelty to each other as well.


Why did Garland choose a pagan figure to summarise the men in Men? It’s likely he was inspired by Kingsley Amis’s folk horror novel The Green Man and/or its TV adaptation. Men and The Green Man share the same few locations: a country house, a forest, a churchyard, a village pub. Both have a sinister priest, a supernatural bird, a sundered spouse who dies, and in both the protagonist’s bereavement gets teased as an explanation for the supernatural things they’re seeing. The protagonist in Amis’s The Green Man is pub landlord Maurice, whose misogyny attracts the ghost of an occultist called Underhill. Underhill wants to kill Maurice’s daughter, since, as a ghost, he can’t have sex with her: violent misogyny drives Amis’s story as it does Garland’s. To do the job, Underhill summons the Green Man to kill her in the forest, while in Men the Geoffrey-aspect of the Green Man attacks Harper on a country road. 

“Why are you doing this?” she screams about her persecution. At the plot-level, it’s how Garland dramatises the way she, even after her husband’s death, hasn’t escaped him—he continues to torment her in masked forms. While at the thematic level, their marital conflict is the latest iteration of one the film deems ancient. For the Green Man contains his own conflict. As Russell Hoban writes of the Green Man-type figure that his title character finds in Riddley Walker:

Not a woman this wernt a woman thing… Becaws a woman is a wooman aint she. Shes the 1 with the woom shes the 1 with the new life coming out of her. You wunt carve a womans face with vines and leaves growing out of the mouf. A woman shewl dy back in to the earf but not the same as a man. You cud see the knowing of that in Greanvines eyes. A man myt get 100s of childer but the onlyes new life growing out of him will be that dead mans vine at the end of his run.

In Darren Aronofsky’s film The Fountain, Hugh Jackman’s quest for the immortality-granting Tree of Life ends with him being killed by it, its vines and leaves growing out of his mouth. So too in Men is male creativity associated with death. At one point Harper finds the Schoolboy miming sex with “a bird”—a dead, possibly supernatural crow he uses as a masturbation aid wearing a plastic mask of a woman: porn, petit-mort, the bird of death combined in a potent symbol for the dead-end of the male sex drive. 

Yet the film isn’t simplistically taking sides against male creation opposed to female. As Riddley Walker asks, “How far back did Greanvine go?” The Green Man’s Russian doll births might depict how men lead to men as we’ve known them through history, but it can’t be an infinite regress. What was the genesis? Part of the answer lies in how Garland alternates shots of the carving of the Green Man with a carving of a naked woman with legs spread: the Sheela-na-gig—not just a PJ Harvey album, but a symbol of female sexuality, perhaps of creation and rebirth. More to the point, we see these carvings as two sides of the same baptismal font: where new humans are blessed into the world.


Doris Lessing’s novel The Cleft tells a legend of how the first humans were female. Called “clefts”, they lived in Eden-like surroundings by a cleft of rocks, and reproduced like asexual plants do, through parthenogenesis (from the Greek for “virgin birth”). Sometimes, though, a new creature cleaved away without a cleft between his legs but “pipes and bulges”. Called “squirts”, these seemingly deformed monsters were left to die of exposure. A few were rescued by eagles, grew to adulthood and formed their own community. But when the first grown-up squirt met a cleft, he raped her; the resultant child was the first “real” human. Ever since, women and men have been at odds, with the clefts using young women to lure men to die on the rocks.

Harper creates like the clefts do, like asexual plants, by herself. In the country house she plays not a harp but a piano, laid over shots of the plants outside. She’d told Geoffrey she couldn’t play—why lie to him? To avoid being asked to perform; as she’d explained to her worried friend Riley, she’d come to this house by herself, for herself. Hence why the setting of Men isn’t arbitrary; a country house gives her access to her own Eden-like surroundings. There she goes for a walk with only plants for company (we see no animals), and smiles sincerely for the first time; further on, in the forest tunnel, she creates a song out of the echoes of her own voice—again creating from and for herself. Yet the song draws out a man, only after which do we hear our first animal sounds: the cawing of a crow, the bird of death. 

Some symbols are so old, they’re beyond cliché; they’re elemental. Just as Jonathan Glazer in Birth used a tunnel in New York City’s Central Park to stand for the birth canal, the forest tunnel in Men gives birth too. Self-pleasing nature, as an unintended consequence of its spontaneous creativity, has led to a new creature, one with pipes and bulges on show, naked and hairless as the day he was born.

Unintended but not unrelated. Take the other imagery that recurs throughout the film along with the Green Man and Sheela-na-gig carvings. Harper’s outfits have flower patterns. In the forest, a deer carcass boils with maggots. Then there are all the apples, one of which Harper eats. (Geoffrey tells her she’s forbidden but then says he’s joking—a wink from Garland that works two ways: the film is going to have some heavy-handed metaphors so don’t say you weren’t warned; but don’t think the filmmakers aren’t aware of what they’re playing with either.) In the pub, Geoffrey repeatedly muses over a crossword clue, its answer “pomegranate”, which is the fruit that trapped Persephone into her unhappy marriage with Hades; it also means “apple of many seeds”. Seeds drift across several scenes. While Mary caught a feather, the Green Man blows feathery dandelion seeds in Harper’s face; she breathes one into her body, her own annunciation. But this isn’t a virgin birth. Seeds, maggots, flowers, fruit—the signs not of asexual but sexual reproduction. 


Like Lessing’s novel, Men digs to the beginning of the battle of the sexes: sex itself. Having chased Harper into a bathroom, the Priest asks her, “When did you lose your virginity?” Another great piece of bivalent dialogue–it’s the sort of question a sinister priest would ask one of his victims, but it has the right thematic resonance too: when did sex start? By the end of Men we’ve seen how the male and female aren’t opposed, as the horror trope of monster vs. final girl might have us initially think, so much as they’re caught in a dialectic. (Hence why the song Harper creates at the tunnel-mouth recurs as a musical motif, and especially in the birth sequence.) What is the nature of this relationship, of which Harper and James’s doomed one was an example, and why does it take the tenor it so often does, antagonistic if not full-on violent? 

Crowding Harper in the bathroom, the Priest leers at her “cave”, her “rocks”. This language isn’t a coarsening from the cod-poetic to the tritely misogynist; it’s there to remind us of imagery, on- and off-screen: the rocks onto which singing sirens lure men to their deaths in The Odyssey, like the clefts do to the squirts; the cave-like tunnel from which the first man was roused by Harper’s singing. Garland dwelt on her singing, for which Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow composed such an ear-worm, not as self-indulgence, but for emphasis, so that we’d remember it when the Priest alludes to sirens. Because what does it mean for him to associate Harper’s spontaneous, joyous, private moment of creation with a siren song? 

The tunnel scene is what you’d call the “inciting incident” leading to the plot’s “rising action”—apt terms for a film that deals with accusations of incitement and arousal. The Priest accuses Harper of driving him to his actions (like he said she drove her husband to suicide) as though he’s one of the sailors destined for the rocks and not an Odyssean hero who can restrain himself. His knot of entitlement and resentment is one way a man can deal with the “knowing” that “he myt get 100s of childer but the onlyes new life growing out of him will be that dead mans vine at the end of his run.” And it’s no coincidence a Christian priest accuses Harper like this: a spokesman for one of the patriarchal religions that co-opted and warped the male-female pagan symbology that came before. But when Harper confronts the Priest in turn, asking, “What are you?” he doesn’t say he’s a personification of Christianity, or the Green Man, but “a swan.” 

He elaborates which he means when he abruptly quotes Yeats’ poem “Leda and the Swan”. With its classical references and sexual theme, the poem might be just the sort a posh sinister priest would know by heart. But its content is relevant too; as Guy Davenport writes in “That Faire Field of Enna”, the poem “opens that part of ‘A Vision’ called ‘Dove or Swan,’ in which [Yeats] compares the two annunciations, Leda and Mary, the pagan and the Christian ages… Zeus is the sky (as his name means in Greek),”—or the “brute blood of the air” as Yeats called him—“the whole presence of light in the world… promiscuous because he is generous and impartial.” The Priest, as well as blaming Harper for his actions, aggrandises himself as one of the animal forms Zeus took to promiscuously sow his seed in women and so make the world. 

For straight sex makes more than babies and the battle of the sexes. The Priest continues his quotation: “A shudder in the loins engenders there / The broken wall, the burning roof and tower / And Agamemnon dead.” Here Men mirrors 2001: A Space Odyssey by sketching a time-telescoping vision of history. For the latter, a hominid clubbing a tapir to death led to all civilisation, up to and including orbital nuke platforms. For Men, sex led both to the birth of our ancestors and the sacking of Troy, to civilisation and its cyclic destruction. 

The first time we met Geoffrey his nervous grunts recalled the country house host in Julia Davis’s criminally under-watched miniseries Camping; and as with that show, you might’ve thought the conflict in Men would be a class one: rural landowners versus the holidaying urban bourgeoisie. But in Garland’s vision, there’s no older -ism than sexism: “pre-Shakespeare,” as Geoffrey says of the house—that is, pre-modern. Other bigotries come from history. Sexism is prehistoric, the first division and divisiveness, all civilisation’s creation myth (and so the film’s corny Eve/apple joke justifies itself). Why else does the night sky in the climax of Men become a planetarium-style view of the Milky Way, appearing as a sort of vaginal cleft? As with Doris Lessing’s The Cleft, Men’s vision is that sexism is primordial, and what led to it maintains it, whether that’s at the Dawn of Man or on the last day of a marriage like James and Harper’s.


This primordial perspective might explain why the film doesn’t make more of James’s race or class. Yet the (all white) hosts of Slate’s Gabfest podcast, anxious to flag they’d caught out the film’s racial problematics, infer with implied “yikes” that his accent means he’s “probably an immigrant”; for them, this exposes the casting of Ghanaian-descended Essiedu in the role of the violent husband as tone-deaf tokenism on Garland’s part. But James’s accent is an East London one (Essiedu is British, from Walthamstow). Harper’s repressed guilt over his death can only return in disguise, behind a mask, as its opposite: as posh white men from the countryside instead of a black man from the inner city. That is, till her dawning acceptance at the end of the film, when the white shells are shed for the original black husband. The respective races aren’t as important as this contrast; and, if anything problematic had to be avoided it was depicting a white Harper with a dead white husband being tormented by black men who all look the same; now that would be a different film.

Because, beyond pagan archetypes and classical swans, what the men in Men are is Harper’s husband. Though an obvious read of the country house’s red rooms might be a womb (or woom as Hoban would have it), they also remind you that Harper, on some level, never left the red-sunlight drenched apartment where he died. “You’ll never be free of me,” God says to Maurice in Amis’s The Green Man, a sentiment James expresses to Harper in so many words. Bloodied from his fatal fall, he confronts her at the end like the guilt-embodying dead from a classic ghost story. She asks, “What do you want from me?” and he replies, “Your love.” Women make men who then blame them for the love they demand at any cost. Instead of giving it, Harper picks up an axe we saw by the fireplace like Chekhov’s gun.

All holiday she’s been haunted by the ghosts of men past, men present and, it would seem, men future. Is Garland’s fable, then, a gender-pessimist, even biologically determinist one? Will sexual reproduction, that lopsided synthesis of the Green Man and Sheela-na-gig, keep reproducing the world we know? Garland does have form in this regard; in his film Ex Machina (which could easily also have been titled Men) Oscar Isaac has just as soon invented A.I. as dressed it as a woman and fucked it. Such pessimism is matched only by Glazer’s Under the Skin, where, from the moment the lure of Scarlett Johnson detaches from the alien flytrap, all men go from potential prey to various aspects of male predator. (Garland’s films do seem to be in constant conversation with those of his compatriot; Men could easily have been titled Sexy Beast or Birth or indeed Under the Skin.) 

But Harper isn’t looking pessimistic or even resigned in the film’s epilogue: she’s smiling. Why? Did she, like Leda, put on man’s knowledge with his power, before the indifferent axe dropped? It looks like the tormented woman has, Repulsion-style, turned out to be the real killer. Or maybe she’s found peace; after all, the symbol of the Green Man in the UK marks where it’s safe to cross a road. Has Harper made her own transition, a synthesis or symbiosis, a pact with her devil-man? (Her marital name is Marlow—from Dashiell Hammett or The Heart of Darkness? Or the Marlowe of Dr Faustus?) Then a pact to what end?

The arrival of Harper’s friend Riley in the epilogue implies just what. Riley’s spent the film pleading with Harper over video chat to let her come help while Harper refused. In Men it’s the men who are needy; contra Jung, they’re the chaotic, suffocating ones, whereas the women had seemed self-sufficient, like asexual plants. But once Riley makes it to the country house we see something we couldn’t on video chat. Continuing the Larkin poem: “Get out as early as you can / And don’t have any kids yourself.” Riley didn’t listen—she’s pregnant. Here we might recall the village Harper is staying in is called “Cotson”, with its hint of babies, and male ones at that. Will Riley give birth to a boy? Will he grow up to be another aspect of the Green Man? Yet there’s no mention of a father (perhaps she cleaved a baby from her like in The Cleft). Then again, when she made her last video call her face distorted into a monster’s; even she can’t be taken literally. Perhaps pregnant Riley stands for the Faustian pact between the sexes. Why do women and men stick together when the results are so often like a horror film? Because, as Garland wrote in his script for 28 Days Later, “What do nine men [alone] do but wait to die themselves? Women mean a future.”

Mazin Saleem is a writer from the UK. His first novel, The Prick, came out in 2019, and he is a regular book and film critic for Strange Horizons, the Tribune, Little Atoms and more. His short fiction has been published at such places as 3AM Magazine, Litro Magazine and Minor Lits, and his substack about the arts, “Artless”, can be read at https://mazinsaleem.substack.com .

Transparency Statement

This essay was commissioned from an emailed pitch. The author and editors had no previous acquaintance. It was edited by Zachary Gillan and copyedited by Jake Casella Brookins. No review copies were arranged by ARB.

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