The independently-owned film and television production company A24 was founded in 2012. In the ten years of its existence, A24 has produced some of the most notable contemporary horror films of the last decade: Hereditary (2018), Midsommer (2019), and The Witch (2015).
The indy production studio’s horror is known to make overt commentary. They’ve explored topics like cyclical family trauma (Hereditary), the insidious dangers of cults (Midsommer), or the constraints of women navigating oppressive patriarchal societies (The Witch). Likewise, their newest psychological horror film, Men rehashes the already-made commentary on patriarchy, specifically emphasizing different aspects of gender-based violence.
However, as well-intentioned as Men might have been in its artistic direction, the film only proved to be over-ambitious and redundant in its critique of sexism.
Throughout the movie, we follow Harper (Jessie Buckley), reeling from a recent tragedy: the death of her husband James (Papa Essiedu). She seeks to heal from her trauma by alone vacationing in a 500-year-old estate in the scenic English countryside.
Though Harper finds solitude hard to accomplish as something or someone is following her. Spoiler: her property manager Geoffrey (Roy Kinnear) occupies various bodies of different men determined to haunt Harper while utilizing different tactics to do so, ranging from microaggressions to verbal assaults to sexual violence.
Not to mention, the town Harper is staying in holds its eerie presence since she appears to be the only woman there. As her time in the isolated estate continues, her dread and suspicion manifest into a nightmare that soon becomes the very thing (or person) she was trying to escape.
This plot sounds interesting enough, but to say the execution of Men fell short is an understatement.
A horror film titled “Men” naturally establishes itself as an entertainment piece that will attempt to further the conversation surrounding the problem that is male-perpetuated violence and patriarchal oppression. And not only does the title seek to entice viewers into this conversation, but even the film’s movie poster holds its forbidding: in bold, red letters, “Men” is stamped over Kinnear’s face as he displays a menacing grin.
Moreover, as Kristy Puchko writes in a review for Mashable, the film’s director—Alex Garland, known for Ex Machina and Annihilation—utilizes the “framework of folk horror to hang his narrative.” The genre relies on the usage of superstition and the supernatural to convey its warnings.
The latter shows up in Men through Geoffrey’s literal shape-shifting into different versions of the same man: Harper’s landlord who seems to “clumsily” microaggress her, the town’s priest who harbors a violent lust for her, a naked man who relentlessly stalks her, and a young boy who spews misogynistic epithets at her.
All in all, the commentary here is clear: Beware, men. All men are the same. Or at least, all men benefit from the violent actions of the next when the victims are women. However, that has been said before; at the very least, female viewers already knew as much.
So, consequently, Men subjects female audience members to things like a triggering almost-rape scene and gratuitous gore in the film’s conclusion that includes close-up shots of simulated births for no good reason. As beautiful as the film’s aesthetics, location, and usage of coloring are, Men was ultimately filmed through a male lens.
The movie contains predominantly male characters. The two female characters showcased (one being the movie’s own heroine) lack depth. Lastly, Men was made for the consideration of a male audience with no regard to how certain scenes in the film might affect women, which feels paradoxical here.
Not to mention, there’s an unsettling racial element to Men that the movie didn’t have the bandwidth to handle gracefully nor properly address. Harper’s husband, James, was a Black man struggling with his mental health. Their marriage was tumultuous for about a year before Harper demanded a divorce. James promises Harper he’ll kill himself if she leaves.
His demise then comes after he slips from an upstairs balcony, meeting Harper’s eye on the way down, and she’s not sure if his fall was intentional or not. Despite Jame’s threat of suicide, Harper locked him out. So he may have been trying to climb back into their apartment.
But the visual of Jame’s disfigured body, especially as his ghostly corpse limps back to Harper in the end (after being birthed feet first from the mouth of Geoffrey), saying he just wanted her love all along, felt uncomfortable at best and irresponsible at worst.
Overall, it seems Men took on more than it could handle. Regardless of what some may think, sexism is nuanced. And any conversation around sexism must center on the most affected (women) to be progressive. Exploring Harper’s psyche, for example, would’ve likely given Men a stronger foundation to make an effective statement on women’s reality under patriarchy.
This also would’ve been mutually beneficial to Buckley’s performance as Harper, which was riveting and heartfelt. However, Men’s choice to not center and give depth to its foremost female character caused the film to lack the credibility to say anything meaningful at all.
Featured image credit: A24.
Ebony Purks is a graduate student at the University of Incarnate Word working toward getting her Master’s degree in communications. She is also a freelance writer, interested in writing about pop culture, social justice, and health; especially examining the many intersections between those subjects.