The whole time I was watching Men, Alex Garland’s new film about men, I was thinking about a better movie about men, which is actually about women. OK, not the whole time, it happened after one scene in particular. The scene comes early. Having just emerged from an abusive marriage which ended in her husband committing suicide in quasi-religious fashion after she asked for a divorce, Jessie Buckley’s character has fled to the country to recoup as though she doesn’t know the definition of folk horror (the big sell of this movie is that British actor Rory Kinnear plays all the men in town, which sounds interesting but ends up … not being). Anyway, she is taking her first walk through the forest which is a supernatural neon green because Garland, a sci-fi lover at heart, can’t resist conveying beauty (and healing) this way. His heroine’s decompression is palpable as she advances down a rambling path, smiling up at the sky, the trees, the chirping birds around her, choral music lifting the landscape to rapturous heights. The message is clear: This place untouched by men is utopian. “I wanted the countryside and the house in Men to have that bourgeois reassurance about it — that comfort zone,” Garland told Vulture, adding, “for Jessie Buckley’s character, Harper, it’s like, This is perfect. This is what I dreamed it would be. This is a place where I can be comforted, process, and get better.”
But all I could think of was a similar scene at the start of The Nightingale, Jennifer Kent’s 2018 masterpiece, which, to put it crudely, is also about toxic masculinity. In that case, a young Irish convict, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), who’s known as The Nightingale for her beautiful voice which is used to entertain her captors, walks through the forest in a Tasmanian penal colony in 1825. But she is not smiling up at the trees, she is not closing her eyes in ecstasy. Her eyes are instead peeled. Even while singing to her baby and offering it a smile or two, her eyes dart from left to right, monitoring her surroundings, a knife in her hand. There is no one else here, only her voice and the birds’. Her vulnerability, exposed in the wilderness, is palpable. This scene has stuck with me in the four years since I first saw the film as the best depiction of the kind of naked defenselessness women can feel having been born into a world shaped by men. “She’s my property, so I’ll do what I want with her,” the lieutenant in charge of Clare will later say, and even in that forest his voice reverberates. While Garland’s Men externalizes the threat to women as a cool conceit, The Nightingale and Kent know better: “The violent mind that created colonialism is the same violence that exists in the world today.”
As if on cue, following a screening of The Nightingale at the 2018 Venice film festival (where it was the only film directed by a woman in the main competition), a male critic called Kent a “whore.” But he wasn’t the only one who reacted badly to the film’s brutality. There were a number of walkouts, with one woman saying she had already seen Clare raped twice, implying she didn’t fancy seeing it happen once again on her kitchen table after her husband has been shot while her baby is slammed against a wall. And fair enough. But that scene in particular is a perfect example of how clear-eyed The Nightingale is where Men is not. Every detail is precisely calibrated. The inciting incident unfolds in a shack owned by Clare and her husband, it is dark, it is cramped, the three soldiers who barge in drunk almost take up the entire space. There is yelling and crying and screaming and shouting, the kind of relentless aggression that makes you shut your eyes and cover your ears and rock in a corner, crescendoing to the point where Clare being raped for the third time pales in comparison to what is suddenly done to her child. At that point everything stops. Clare doesn’t die in that scene—“You can’t kill what’s already dead,” she will later say—but the silence marks her death anyway. This is a feat of filmmaking with no waste, no misunderstanding, delivering the unadulterated message that violence has so permeated humanity that it only ceases once we are gone. “Welcome to the world, boy, full of misery from top to bottom,” Clare tells Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), her Aboriginal guide on her journey of revenge, as if he didn’t already know.
“For me, it was important for people to understand what happens during those terrible moments—which happen all the time throughout the world, not just 200 years ago. I wanted people to understand that it’s about power and it’s about destruction. Those were my guidelines,” Kent explained in Vulture. “We’re in this mess in the world because people do want to turn away from it, but we need to examine our behavior as well as others’ behavior and ask: ‘How do I contribute to the violence in the world?’”
Garland has skin in the game, but it’s just skin. Men is very much a movie by a man who appears to think he has a handle on how women feel around men, which is to say, it is a movie in which the penultimate scene has a man giving birth to himself over and over and over again in front of a woman. Is it really a metaphor? Or is Garland that solipsistic? (This is a rhetorical question.) Men turns out to be an apt title—it is simplistic and not a little lame. “It’s quite interesting that such a short, simple word can be so freighted with massive and entirely subjective meanings,” Garland told the New York Times, which claimed the title was provocative. It isn’t. It’s banal. It fits seamlessly into the margins of the A24 brand, the “indie movie” studio du jour—they are behind everything from Uncut Gems to Midsommar to After Yang—which has collected a good bit of critical ribbing for producing a number of movies with smart aesthetics but without much actual substance, a sort of lifestyle brand for dilettantish cinephiles. That is to say, you get a lot of good-looking hipster-friendly films and marketing, but not always much to actually talk about. So instead of engaging in the profound implications of a film like The Nightingale, critics are left kicking around Men’s lack of balls.
There is nothing wrong with a movie about men’s perspective on how they treat women (lol); there is something wrong with making a woman the central character of that same film—in Men, Buckley is often center frame, often shot from below—and then basically giving her the bum’s rush. There is a lovely scene in which Harper enters a cave (symbolic) and proceeds to conduct a symphony out of her echoes. A good metaphor! Perhaps not the one Garland intended! Perhaps she contains multitudes, but we wouldn’t know it, every aspect of her is invisible in this film (as all women are invisible, like echoes—ooh, profound, though I honestly don’t think this was his intention). The men meanwhile are overrepresented, narratively as well as physically. Maybe Garland writing the first draft of Men 15 years ago explains the first draft-ness of his approach to toxic masculinity with this pastiche of very obvious imagery and very obvious dialogue that seems to repeat one note: men are shitty to women.
Recurring symbols include two Celtic creatures—The Green Man (a leafy dude who is a symbol of rebirth, though Garland presents him as invasive here) and Sheela Na Gigs (naked female figures with exaggerated vulvas, representing everything from warding off evil spirits to fertility)—but more blatant is the “forbidden fruit” of an apple tree. Yes, those words are spoken, so are the words “damsel in distress.” There’s quite a bit of dandelion fluff floating around too (apparently it symbolizes growth and optimism—either way it’s given the slo-mo Von Trier treatment), not to mention the repeated silent scream and even a time-lapsed decomposing deer. Everything but the kitchen sink! Garland throws it all at the wall—nature, mythology, nude bloody Kinnear, hot priest Kinnear, a creepy CGI’d reverse chronology Kinnear face exclaiming “stupid bitch”—but to what end? “I was trying to make a film about a sense of horror,” Garland explained in Den of Geek. “That’s what I think this film is, and that could be interpreted many different ways or lead you different ways.”
Oof, I mean, how can you argue with that? You can’t, that’s the point. Compare that to Kent drawing up 150-plus detailed maps of every location she wanted in The Nightingale, each one to reflect Clare’s psyche at any given moment. I realize Kent’s is a psychological period thriller, Garland’s a modern-day folk horror, and I wouldn’t be comparing these two films if Men wasn’t absolutely begging me to. Both are kicked off by a woman’s trauma, both unfurl around a woman feeling unsafe around men. (Both have similar posters.) But where Garland’s remains on the surface, Kent’s goes deep. This is what makes The Nightingale almost unwatchably haunting, while Men ends up being just a bunch of dumb jump scares. In the latter, the menace is a fantasy, a white man’s high-concept attempt to evoke something he can only imagine. In the former, the menace is historic, it is patriarchal inheritance that continues to hollow out women, hollow out men, hollow out societies. It doesn’t have to be dressed up because the horror is intrinsic. But only a filmmaker who really understands what men have done can make that film. And it’s not Garland. In the imitable words of Billy in The Nightingale, “White fellow way is shit way.”