Alex Garland’s new film, Men, is now playing in UK cinemas – and it leaves behind plenty of things to think about.
Note: The following article contains tonnes of spoilers for Men.
There are a number of recurring images of faces that are littered throughout Men – Alex Garland’s third feature as writer-director. The first is a simple one – Rory Kinnear’s face, which is grafted on to every male character in the village where the action takes place, including a silver-haired vicar and a nine-year-old boy. Jessie Buckley’s protagonist Harper has booked a two-week stay in a secluded country home close to the village, hoping to refresh and reset amid the grief she feels around the apparent suicide of her abusive husband (Paapa Essiedu). But she soon becomes unsettled by the local men, who are variously threatening, lecherous or merely casually misogynist.
It’s Essiedu’s face which serves as the second visual motif, specifically the moment in which his eyes seemed to meet with Harper’s as he fell past the window of their London flat. Harper discusses being haunted by this idea and whether it was even possible for them to have locked eyes at all amid his fatal fall. It’s that image from which Harper is trying to escape, mostly by swapping the confines of the city – Garland and DP Rob Hardy light the London flat with harsh, unforgiving orange sunlight to convey the powder-keg atmosphere – for the verdant beauty of the countryside.
The final facial motif with which Garland busies himself is a more oblique face, that of the Green Man. Carved on to dozens of British churches, including those built as far back as the 11th century, the figure is one at the centre of dispute among academics and folklorists. Garland is clearly aware of this ambiguity and weaponises that to get the most out of this malleable myth.
What is the Green Man?
The modern understanding of the Green Man is a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster of folklore. It was Lady Raglan who helped to shape the 20th century version of the idea, with a 1939 article in which she used the term Green Man to refer to the figures – previously referred to as “foliate heads” – depicted in church architecture. She theorised that the Green Man represents a pagan deity of fertility and rebirth, serving as a remnant of Britain’s pre-Christian past hiding in plain sight, born of a time in which unofficial paganism existed side-by-side with Christianity.
Raglan connected the Green Man to May Day traditions including the Jack-in-the-Green – worth a Google for fans of Ari Aster’s Midsommar ending. Indeed, pubs in the UK which use the name The Green Man have often adorned their signs with foliate heads since Raglan’s essay was published, having previously used images more akin to the traditional depiction of the Jack-in-the-Green. Raglan’s connection has been the source of criticism, with scholars pointing out that many of the church carvings of foliate heads are much older than traditions such as the Jack-in-the-Green, which were born around the 18th century. There are also Green Man carvings all over the world, including in the Middle East, with some dating to ancient civilisations.
In terms of the UK alone, folklorist Stephen Winick has sourced references to “green men” in writing from the 1500s, which suggest that these figures were already an established part of British tradition by then – 200 years before the first recorded example of the Jack-in-the-Green. These writings describe “green men” as savage-like figures adorned with leaves and carrying firework-laden clubs, whose role would be to travel ahead of a parade or procession in order to clear crowds.
So the meaning of the Green Man is in a constant state of flux, with academics scuffling to this day about what the ecclesiastical foliate head represents. However, it’s clear that the figure represents the primal and eternal connection between humanity and nature, as well as the cyclical nature of life, death and rebirth – whatever form that takes. And that brings us back to Men…
How does the Green Man appear in Men?
The image of the Green Man appears regularly throughout Men, with multiple eerie shots of the foliate heads carved in the village church. He is often shown in tandem with the carved image of the sheela-na-gig – a naked, squatting woman pulling apart her labia. Speaking of both figures in the production notes for Men, Garland says: “We know these symbols are ancient, that they’re powerful and that they have an effect on us, but we don’t really know what they mean, and it’s hard to discern what is mythology and what is not. That made them perfect for the film.”
The Green Man serves a number of purposes in the film, working as an emblem of how impossible it is for women abused by men to escape from them. Even in the countryside, male toxicity is everywhere – within the police force and even looking down from the walls of churches. All of the film’s men reflect various facets of toxic masculinity, with some more overtly aggressive and sinister than others, whose darkness is more insidious and buried beneath authority or politeness. This theme comes to a head in the unhinged finale, in which Garland channels the masters of socially-conscious body horror to construct an unforgettable set piece.
After a series of unusual confrontations with the various Rory Kinnears at the village pub, Harper retreats back to her home and has a chat with her friend Riley, who vows to drive the four hours to meet her and keep her company. But while Harper waits, she has terrifying encounters with numerous Kinnears, including being sexually assaulted by a sinister vicar and a shocking heel turn for the previously mild-mannered Geoffrey.
One of the most unsettling figures Harper encounters is a silent, naked stalker who seems to emerge from the end of a railway tunnel in the first act and subsequently stalks her through the forest which had previously seemed to serve as a gateway to the peaceful escape Harper wanted. Suddenly every corner of the sun-dappled woods seems threatening. Even when the authorities intervene, the stalker is ultimately released – his infractions not deemed severe enough for the system to protect Harper.
We then see him cutting his skin and inserting foliage into the bloody wounds he creates until he eventually assumes his final form and emerges naked from the forest bearing a dense mask of leaves and twigs – the epitome of the mythical Green Man. His stomach soon grows and a vagina appears below his penis, almost immediately dilating as he gives birth to the child version of Kinnear seen early in the film. That child then births an adult Kinnear and, eventually, by virtue of innumerable vaginas which spout from groins, backs and even mouths, the movie’s various Kinnears birth each other in turn. Finally, they give birth to James – Harper’s late husband.
Seemingly having just about got her head around the chaos – grotesque body horror squishiness akin to David Cronenberg or Brian Yuzna – Harper asks James what he wants, to which he simply replies “your love”.
What does it all mean?
In the context of this movie, the Green Man serves as a symbol for the longevity of male violence. One toxic male gives birth to another and another, either via affirming and encouraging their toxicity or by simply ignoring it and allowing it to fester. Misogyny and male violence is framed as a hereditary contagion, passed on through the generations until it eventually creates someone like James – a man capable of physical and emotional abuse.
James isn’t unusually evil or an aberration, according to this reading. He’s an inevitable consequence of generations of unchallenged toxic masculinity as malign infection. If we don’t challenge casual misogyny, the film seems to theorise, then abuse and violence are the inevitable consequence down the line. Garland has spoken about Men as a story being told from the perspective of a man who is horrified by what those like him are capable of, and that is certainly conveyed by this finale.
The Green Man is framed as a sort of ground zero for this, as if representing the “original sin” of man. Early in the film, Harper takes an apple from a tree in a clear nod to Eden, but it’s notable that the entire crop falls dramatically from the tree prior to the Green Man’s arrival – a representation of many sins at once. The Green Man’s role as a symbol of the cycle of death and rebirth is central here, setting into motion the vicious cycle that leads men to become abusers, stretching all the way back to the image of that wild man with the club in the 16th century.
It ultimately feels as if the Green Man is inescapable – an image of masculinity present and looking down upon women even away from the bustle of the city. It serves as a symbol of male danger lurking within even the most comforting places, as further represented by the gendered insults yelled at Harper by an innocent-looking boy and the way a supposedly helpful vicar transforms into an abuse apologist and, later, a perpetrator of horrific sexual violence.
The mystery of the Green Man’s origins, in fact, provides a nice bow on the thesis of the film. Much like the foliate head carvings, we don’t know where or why toxic masculinity and violence was born, but we do know that it’s now lurking just about everywhere.
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