In this next chapter in the series of movies explained, I tackled one of the most bizarre films of the year, Alex Garland’s Men (2022). From the mind-blowing birthing scene to the metaphorical meaning of the dark tunnel and the awakening of The Green Man, I simply all of the little details. Welcome to Men (2022) explained!
Men (2022) marks the third feature film by Alex Garland – a director who earned his spot among our times’ top science fiction filmmakers – as well as his third collaboration with A24 Studio. The British creator has been cooking up the script for Men (2022) for over a decade, and when it finally arrived, viewers and critics were left to argue about whether this one’s an arthouse masterpiece or an arthouse stinker.
Uncovering the meaning behind Men (2022) wasn’t an easy-peasy job, but I’ve arrived at some conclusions, aided by interviews with the cast and Alex Garland himself. So, if you’re still scratching your head whenever the nightmarish birthing pops into your mind, I hope this article will give a better sense of it. Note that these are mostly my recollections and theories and I’m keen to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Let’s start with a short recap of the plot of Men (2022).
What is Men (2022) about?
Men (2022) follows Harper (Jessie Buckley), a recently widowed woman who rents a charming cottage in the English countryside to collect her thoughts and make peace with the loss of her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu).
After arriving at the place, she meets Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), an eccentric housekeeper who owns the rental and lives nearby. Although Geoffrey strikes her as a relatively innocuous type, Harper immediately senses that something isn’t right. Her instability strengthens due to the traumatic end of the marriage and the abusive character of her dead husband.
However, the protagonist is set on moving on. She immediately shakes off the first impression and leaves for a calming walk in a forest nearby.
Hidden deep in the forest is a tunnel, where Harper haphazardly awakens a strange figure that begins to follow her. Hence begins a true horror, where the face of the creature surrounds Harper everywhere, leading to a state of ubiquitous intrusion and men-made siege on all fronts.
As the gallows tighten around the neck of the main character, she tries to understand the meaning of this stalking. Eventually, following a perturbing mutation of The Green Man into all the characters that harassed her throughout the film – the forest entity finally takes the body of James, the deceased husband.
Men (2022) is about the process of grieving
According to the book On Death and Dying, published by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969, there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
When we first meet Harper, the incident that led to her husband’s death is still a fresh wound. However, Alex Garland hints at a different source of pain that hinders Harper’s healing process. Rather than grieving over the death of her other half, Harper suffers from the overwhelming sense of guilt that James has purposefully poisoned her with. James waged war with some very dark demons, turning the marriage into a beating bag, way beyond repair. In one of their tumultuous conversations, James openly throws dirt on Harper, claiming that if she dares to leave him, he will commit suicide. Hence when the husband dies in somewhat cryptic circumstances, Harper’s burdened with blame.
As much as the tragic accident weighs heavily, Harper succumbs to the crippling fear of reaching a rabbit’s hole – she suffers from a persecution complex caused by James’ incessant mental abuse.
The plot of Men (2022) captures Harper’s journey through the stages of grief. Harper plans to take a shortcut by skipping denial and shoving anger deep inside her. The main character is devoured by depression – resulting from her powerlessness against the oppressor.
The encounters with The Green Man’s sprawlings cause the negative feelings that Harper tries to erase to leave cracks in her pitch-perfect facade. The Green Man pulls her back to the cradle, pushing her to experience all the stages again and relive the terrible time she hopes to forget.
As Garland proceeds with all the traumatizing horrors, Harper returns to her attempts to grasp the reason for this continuous harassment.
Firstly, she’s angry – at the men lurking in the distance, stalking her, but also at the system’s inability to aid her. In the later stages of the film, when The Green Man wreaks havoc and invades the protagonist in the cottage, Garland indicates the bargaining part of the process. Reasoning with the sinister force is like reaching the depths of her trauma – trying to understand why these things happen.
The film’s wicked finale reveals the two last stages of grief. As Harper observes the never-ending chain of the mutations of the carnal monstrosity in an emotionless, fed-up gaze, she finally gives herself to a state of depression (immaculately captured by Jessie Buckley). Harper’s no longer terrified by the grotesque transformation, and the final form of this pulp of limbs and organs arrives to herald the moment of catharsis.
Consequently, the scene in which Harper finally gets the answer to the nagging question – what do you want from me – is such an emotional trainwreck. After all that the main character’s been through – the ordeal of the overwhelming, folk-horror nightmare of making peace with her past – James’ seemingly innocent craving to have her love for himself is disastrously painful. Underneath all that suffering lies the toxicity of their relationship.
Finally, the acceptance stage.
Drained of emotions and the will to reason with him, Harper is finally ready to end this vicious circle of abuse that pulls her back into the void. That’s indicated by how Buckley touches the axe she’s holding when sitting next to James. Garland leaves that to our imagination, but the ending of Men (2022) seems set on showing that the grief process needs to conclude with Harper symbolically killing the blood-smeared embodiment of James.
Men (2022) depicts abuse and horror from a female perspective
From aggressive shouting to intrusive gestures and full-fledged physical violence, Men (2022) unpacks a whole array of forms of abuse. Despite the folk horror elements and supernatural themes, Men (2022) displays horror as Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) did. Garland places the audience in close vicinity of Harper at all times and bolsters the effect of entrapment and the sense of threat looming in every corner.
Therefore, while the transformation of The Green Man often deploys ghastly images and means of body horror, what scares the most is the continuous abuse toward Harper. The Green Man takes on many forms, and each one encapsulates a particular type of humiliation, flippant behavior, or other kinds of offensive stereotypization.
Alex Garland’s not very subtle in emphasizing the alienation of Harper, either. The authorities downplay The Green Man’s intrusive behavior, and the vicar’s character openly points to the disgusting trade-off he expects in return for his “spiritual help.” That’s also the brilliance of how horror ingrains in the tissue of Men (2022). Instead of shock value, Garland sets up unpleasant situations that become borderline terrors.
Such is the vicar scene where the gesture of putting a hand on Harper’s knee is more hideous than anything else in the film.
Evil, though dressed in many societal roles (clergy, police officer, kids), is all the same because it traces back to the man who hurt Harper. The Green Man’s incarnations are metaphorical reflections of James, therefore the use of the same face in each spawn. Even if it’s not James’ face, the subliminal message is that Harper’s surrounded, shackled by her memories. There’s destructive power in the notion that all suffering and torment links to particular individuals, situations, or even fleeting moments that echo years after.
Besides, let’s not forget that Harper’s marriage wasn’t always one extensive trauma – at least that should be taken into account. Alas, all we get to see are only the most painful flashbacks that preceded James’ demise. Their relationship had to be happy in the past, which makes Harper’s wounds all more painful when torn apart and messed with.
Who is The Green Man in Men (2022)?
Let’s unwrap all the possible references and meanings of The Green Man, played by Rory Kinnear.
The Green Man’s first appearance takes place when Harper goes on a stroll around a lush forest. Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, composers behind the score of Men (2022), ornament the country walk with a whimsical melody that empowers the next disturbing tunnel scene. When inside the tunnel, Harper composes her vocalization theme that accidentally awakens someone at the end of the tunnel – The Green Man.
While the true identity of The Green Man is never revealed, Alex Garland hints at some theories.
One way to interpret the scary silhouette is that he’s a folk god, a devil-like entity that Harper connects to by entering the tunnel. Judging from the ominous sculptures that foreshadow the grotesque body transformation of the malefic creature, The Green Man attaches himself to Harper like a parasite, feeding off her depression.
Worth noting is that Alex Garland indicates the continuous character of the entity’s transformation. Before becoming James, The Green Man grows and changes – he’s a particularly nasty tormentor. At first, his appearance is that of a naked creepy man (sorry, Rory Kinnear), whilst the final form appears far more rooted in the entity’s connection with the forest. This seems to be intentional. Biblical Satan was also morphing into various forms – such as the snake from Genesis – to deceive humans.
The Green Man may play several roles in Men (2022). He may be interpreted as a devil spirit that torments Harper for the sake of doing it. Perhaps a more plausible reason is that The Green Man reveals himself as an embodiment of Harper’s trauma and grief and becomes an ingrained part of her life that she must accept. That would be a very fitting explanation considering the possible meaning of Sheela na gigs – the rocky sculptures of humans spreading their genitalia that can be found in the abbey. Finally, The Green Man might as well be just a creation existing in Harper’s mind.
Sheela na gigs
According to Wikipedia, Sheela na gigs were figurative carvings of naked women with depictions of exaggerated vulvas that were to be found on the walls of European cathedrals, castles, and other buildings.
The most likely reason for their existence is that Sheela na gigs were used as artifacts in apotropaic magic, a branch of mystical practices to ward off evil spirits.
We’re still in the dark as to the precise meaning of the sculptures, though historians indicate the following theories:
- Sheela na gigs symbolize pagan goddesses,
- They were used to warn men against lust and sins to the flesh,
- However, they also could be figurines of fertility.
In the context of Men (2022), the most probable reason for their frequent appearances is that they heralded the arrival of The Green Man. The altar ornamentation inside the abbey includes a carving of a Sheela na gig. Hence, the omnipresent use of the sculptures may as well indicate some cabal operation that Harper accidentally uncovered. So, we cannot rule out the option that Men (2022) is secretly a film about occultism too.
On the other hand, the use of Sheela na gigs can also point to the feminist aspect of Men (2022). After all, this is a feminist horror – a story about the need to overcome man’s will. In that sense, Jessie Buckley’s character needs to build up the strength to finally stand up for herself – the kind of courage she did not have when dealing with James. Hence the figurines may be understood as symbols of her journey of becoming more confident as a woman who will no longer accept the role of a push-over that her deceased husband imposed.
The Perplexing Birthing Sequence in Men (2022) – What’s That All About?
Alex Garland wouldn’t be himself if Men (2022) didn’t venture into body horror. Nothing can, however, prepare viewers for the eerie grotesque that unveils in the film’s finale, up to a point the writer-director hits us with a hammer.
The Green Man, visibly going through a blossoming transformation on his own, appears in the garden. However, the final form of the monstrous change is James, all covered in blood, limping toward Harper.
Some praiseworthy design details prove Alex Garland’s meticulous approach to crafting that scene.
For instance, the lighting in the background (when the mutated version of James appears) is the same as in the scene when Harper struggles to end the ongoing battle with the husband. The filmmaker has been set on using a very strict color palette that uses only red and green, with the first used for very specific, most painful moments and the latter indicating the surroundings and calmness that Harper reaches for.
According to Rory Kinnear, the birth sequence isn’t, however, a depiction of birth. The actor explains his interpretation as follows:
“It wasn’t a birthing sequence. It was just mutations. So one became the next and it was like this walk through this little house of mirrors where I changed into these various characters. So (Alex Garland) made it more primal, more urgent, very much formative for all these characters. Alex wanted to challenge himself and, I guess, take a greater risk with that end. And it’s certainly distinctive and bold.“
Kinnear also added:
“Each one that was birthed, I wanted to encapsulate what I considered their fundamental primal instinct. When you meet a newborn baby, you realize it’s got its own personality already, completely different from the other newborn baby who’s next door. We all come with a sort of inbuilt fundamental, and I guess that is kind of unchanging in whatever one does as an actor, no matter how hard you try. I feel like that sequence at the end sort of encapsulates that.“
While this birthing scene may also be the most perplexing, uncomfortable moment in the film in 2022, Garland drags long enough to reach a critical point. Whereas average horror films would utilize the gruesome monster to wreak havoc and let the protagonist kill it off in a more or less spectacular way, Men (2022) discards the apparent pattern.
It’s supposed to put us in the shoes of Harper. And Harper needs to overcome her fear and accept that this hideous thing is going to stay.
Therefore, the scene lets us, just like Harper, overcome fear and see the misery and pettiness of this evil. In the beginning, the mutating gooey monster might seem creepy, but after witnessing its endless and painful transformation, the creature looks just pitiful. What comes out eventually – is the pathetic image of James, limping due to the broken ankle and barely moving. That’s one hell of catharsis. Showing this scene feels crucial for Men (2022) to conclude the elaboration regarding grief and Harper’s journey.
In an interview below, Alex Garland uncovers the inspirations behind the mutation sequence.
The Tunnel Metaphor
When analyzing the role of The Green Man, it’s also important to emphasize the metaphorical meaning of the dark tunnel in Garland’s film.
Harper’s idyllic stroll precedes the moment she’s about to enter the cryptic darkness of the tunnel. Although The Green Man appears at its bright end, the story unravels like a walk toward that light. The darkness of the tunnel symbolizes Harper’s journey – the walk into facing her demons and the emotional ballast carried from the relationship.
Such a metaphor ties nicely with the final scenes starring The Green Man. Alas, far from becoming a remedy, the birthing scene constitutes the end of the journey where Harper can finally commence the proper healing process.
The forbidden fruit symbolism
Biblical references often appear in horror films – take The Lighthouse (2019) or Midsommar (2019) as examples. I’ve mentioned the concept of Satan’s many forms and faces that inspired The Green Man. However, there is also the symbolic apple tree. Geoffrey, the housekeeper, reprimands Harper that the apple mustn’t be touched, for it is the forbidden fruit.
Although he, later on, pretends to crack a joke, the act of Harper taking the fruit without permission is an undeniable biblical reference.
Men (2022) might be one of the year’s most perplexing and hard-to-shake-off movies. Alex Garland went way out of his directorial comfort zone, took risks, and crafted a film destined to polarize, piss off, confuse and bedazzle. Whichever category you found yourself in, we hope this analysis helped you in getting the gist of Men (2022) and, hopefully, appreciate it more too.
Drop your propositions for the next films I should feature in the Explained series. Thanks!