If I needed to recover from a life-shattering trauma, an English cottage in the middle of nowhere—no matter how gorgeous—would be near last on my list. If I had no other choice, you can bet every goddamn light in the house would be on. The TV would be blaring. And if there were no curtains, I’d leave.
Men, the latest film from Ex Machina director Alex Garland, begins with Harper (played by Jesse Buckley, who is spectacular) escaping to a remote Airbnb in the English countryside to heal from the death of her abusive husband James (Paapa Essiedu), which may or may not have been a suicide. Instead of peace and quiet, she encounters Men (all of whom are played by Rory Kinnear). There’s a naked stalker (WTF), a well-meaning but discomforting landlord, an apathetic, victim-blaming cop, an unnerving child in a plastic woman’s mask who calls her a “stupid bitch” (WTF), and a sexist vicar who suggests that her husband’s maybe suicide was maybe her fault.
Of course, being a horror film, this movie has some of the most insane, bloody, gruesome moments I’ve ever seen. But there’s one scene that gave me more anxiety, more dread, more WTFs than any of the ones with actual gore and guts.
Harper spends the afternoon exploring the nearby forest and gets chased by a male-like figure through a tunnel. Then, while trying to take a picture of a nice field, she realizes she’s accidentally photographed a random naked man, who’s staring at her. After all this, Harper seems to think the best way to unwind is to take a bath.
And a bath she does take—in a giant claw-foot tub in the middle of a bathroom with windows that have no curtains, like a goddamn sitting duck. After the day she’s had, you’d at least think she’d read or listen to music or watch Netflix (we know she has both an iPhone and a MacBook) to drown out the thoughts of her grief and those weird men, but nope. She just fucking bathes in front of a window.
My heart raced the entire scene. I could literally feel the anxiety in my chest urging me to leave. I fully expected to see a man’s face in the window or hear someone trying to get in or be thrown by another religious allegory popping up out of nowhere. Obviously, this is part of the suspense that comes with watching horror, but it also felt like exactly what Garland was trying to say (or at least part of what he was trying to say, because it was honestly a lot): that the aggressions women experience from men—micro, macro, and all the ones in between—are permanent, foreboding, and always hovering around and within you. Also that a curtain-less Airbnb should be a major red flag.
The overarching theme of the film, which is that Men...aren’t great, unfolds via piles and piles of metaphors and allegories. Some are more obvious than others (a dead, rotting, maggot-ridden deer.) Others are so obvious you think there must be a deeper meaning (Harper eats a literal apple from a tree that the cottage’s owner later chides her for). And others I had to look up (there’s a whole thing with the Pagan imagery of green men and Sheela-Na-Gigs and dandelions). But there are so many that it can be hard to connect the dots, beyond the general vibe that men are exhausting and potentially dangerous. I’d argue no one needed a nearly two-hour horror film to be reminded of this but, to each their own.
Whether or not this takeaway was Garland’s sole intention, he certainly did take us on the journey in the most male way possible—by putting us through hell, only to leave us scratching our heads at the end and saying, “What the fuck?”