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Content Starts The Cycle of Toxic Masculinity in Alex Garland’s “Men” (2022).

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I recently had the pleasure to see Alex Garland’s newest film “Men”. Twice. This movie is definitely one that you’re gonna have to see twice, that is, if you can sit through it in its entirety twice. The title of the movie is a jump-scare in itself, but the real horror of this movie comes from the representation of cyclical toxic masculine culture in our modern world. Spoiler alert, for those who haven’t seen the movie yet.

Rory Kinnear as Geoffrey, The Vicar, and an unnamed man at the pub. (photo from Empire Online).

The movie starts off with our protagonist, Harper (Jessie Buckley), a recent divorcee (or perhaps widow?) who rents a house in the Cotson countryside, and this is where we get our first Male interaction. Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) appears to be the landlord of the estate, and we have a very awkward first interaction with him – from Harper being “teased” for scrumping, to Geoffrey unceremoniously bringing in Harper’s luggage, refusing to be helped. After a quick tour of the house, he’s on his way – leaving Harper to have a video call with one of her girlfriends. As the name of the movie suggests, there are plenty of men in this film – with only three female characters being credited. Rory Kinnear can be credited for playing all the Men in this movie, except Harper’s ex-husband, who is played by British actor Paapa Essiedu.

After going on a walk down a secluded path and getting chased by a clothed figure, Harper has an encounter with a disrobed man who follows her back to Cotson Manor. While having another video call with her friend Riley (Gayle Rankin), she notices the naked man standing in the yard. Harper phones the police, who quickly arrest him. A female police officer says that she believes he wasn’t going to cause any harm to her, despite his earlier attempts to break into the house.

Following this encounter, Harper goes to the local church – this is the point in the film where the folk-horror aspects start to show. At the church, she encounters a young boy and a vicar, both of whom bear a striking resemblance to Geoffrey – the boy asks her to play, which she declines and gets called a “stupid bitch”. The vicar then offers to comfort Harper and when she reveals that her ex-husband committed suicide, the man then questions what she did to make him take his own life; as if her ex-husbands death was her own fault. Offended, she leaves the scene.

Later on in the evening, Harper heads to the pub where she runs into Geoffrey and one of the local policemen. After some quick conversation, the policeman reveals to both Harper and Geoffrey that the naked man was released – it is implied that all these encounters have happened on the same day, and obviously being fed up with the whole situation, Harper leaves and calls Riley to pick her up.

Now, I’m not going to spoil what happens when Harper returns to Cotson Manor, or the ending of this movie, because I think it’s one that everybody should go see. It is an Alex Garland film, so there is disturbing imagery and deep symbolism – but the way Garland does it in Men is meaningful. The portrayal of the Men in this movie is interesting to examine, as Kinnear does a phenomenal job of representing all the facets of toxic masculinity.

Geoffrey, although as charming as his character is in the beginning of the film, mirrors the symptoms of failed, or perhaps repeatedly damaged masculinity and ego. We only see these characters at face value, they are presented as they are, and they give us little clues about their personal lives – it appears that there is no Mrs. Geoffrey. Near the end of the film, while helping the “damsel in distress” Harper, Geoffrey echoes something his father had said to him when he was seven years old; “you have all the characteristics of a failed military man”. Being told something like this at a young age – and especially seeing how it had such a profound impact on Geoffrey – shows that the failure of masculinity can have lasting effects throughout one’s life.

The Vicar brings forth an interesting look into the role of religion and spirituality in masculine culture, the emotionally or sexually repressed masculine energy – rejection? In a later scene, he asks Harper some uncomfortable questions regarding her previous sexual experience – putting forth this label on her as a creature of carnality. Religion and sexuality are two topics that go hand-in-hand, so it was thought provoking to see Garland write this character to represent a certain type of restrain.

The Boy, as described by The Vicar as “deeply troubled”, shows what happens when there is a complete loss of a masculine role-model in a child’s life. This might be controversial to some, but the complete withdrawal of “manliness” (not to be confused with machismo) does in fact have a negative effect on male children and their perceptions of masculinity (Caufield, 2010). Inherently masculine activities and hobbies aren’t things to be ashamed of, it’s when the masculine energy feels threatened or becomes overpowered by femininity – it becomes toxic and the mindset becomes skewed, this is usually where the “I deserve everything from women (as I was provided everything by a female caretaker)” and “I will not take no for an answer” mentality comes from. The Boy is one of the most interesting characters in Men – as he is not a man, but instead in this liminal space between boyhood and adolescence, yet his interactions with Harper reveal that the path he is taking will not help him grow (mentally) into a balanced man.

I also want to take a moment to comment on the films incredible score, composed by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, who also did the soundtracks for Garland’s “Ex Machina” (2014) and “Annihilation” (2018). Although Garland has been quoted for saying he’s going to quit directing movies (New York Times), I really hope that is not the case, as Garland creates pieces that are both controversial, but necessary. I believe that Men is an essential viewing in the modern world of cinema, as this movie (alongside Ari Aster’s “Midsommar”) paint a very important picture centered around the role of stable, confident masculinity in today’s popular counterculture, and what could happen if the flawed, toxic masculine norm grows in such a way that it effects an entire community (or perhaps, on an even larger scale, multiple generations of men).

Further Reading

Caufield, B. (2010). The End of Men? Human Life Review, 36(1), 64-70.

Harrison, M. (2021). The answer to being a better dad is in the redesigning of masculinity. International Journal of Birth & Parent Education, 8(2), 3.

Valved, T., Kosakowska-Berezecka, N., Besta, T., & Martiny, S. E. (2021). Gender Belief Systems Through the Lens of Culture—Differences in Precarious Manhood Beliefs and Reactions to Masculinity Threat in Poland and Norway. Psychology of Men & Masculinities, 22(2), 265–276.

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