Alex Garland on Men: ‘I’m actually seeking to antagonise people’

Alex Garland's highly divisive Men is now in cinemas. Tom Beasley speaks to the main man himself about making the film. 

Alex garland

Alex Garland’s highly divisive Men is now in cinemas. Tom Beasley speaks to the main man himself about making the film. 

Alex Garland is done with directing. He’s within touching distance of the end of his latest feature – the secretive near-future action tale Civil War – and he says that film will hopefully be his last behind the camera. This would allow him to return to writing for other directors as he did earlier in his career with the likes of 28 Days Later and Sunshine. “The reason I started directing was just because I would write a script and feel that I wanted it to be executed a particular way,” says the filmmaker. “I feel like maybe I’ve got that out of my system. I’m not really sure. But I do know I’ve got no urge to direct.“

Before he goes back to his writing desk, though, Garland has a typically idiosyncratic movie to promote. Men, shot amid COVID-19 restrictions last year, is a full-blooded folk horror in which Jessie Buckley portrays a woman hoping that a stay in a secluded country home will allow her to recover after the apparent suicide of her abusive husband (Paapa Essiedu). 

In an unsettling twist, though, the village seems to be populated entirely by men played by Rory Kinnear – from the bumbling posho who owns the house through to a naked stalker and a foul-mouthed teenage boy with a penchant for hide and seek. Some of these men are more overtly sinister than others, but all of them feel like a threat in some form.

jessie buckley men

Garland’s movie is clearly making a point about the omnipresent danger of toxic masculinity and does so by treating the audience to yet another standout performance by Buckley, fresh from her Oscar nod for Netflix drama The Lost Daughter. It’s a film that delivers plenty of verdant imagery, contrasted with slow-burn creepiness, bloodshed and allusions to the mythical, mysterious entity of The Green Man.

The film has been criticised in some quarters for its lack of subtlety, not least for numerous references to the Garden of Eden and its forbidden fruit. But for Garland, “there aren’t any rules that are worth observing” when it comes to whether social commentary in horror cinema should be subtle or nuanced. 

Dawn of the Dead certainly didn’t leave its subtext to the imagination when it used zombies wandering around a shopping mall to satirise consumerism. “You might have an audience member that requires subtlety and another that doesn’t. Sometimes, with films, I’m actually seeking to antagonise people if I’m honest,” says Garland.

The director is thoughtful when I raise a question around another criticism that has been levelled at Men – the notion of whether a film about the damage men do to women should be told from the perspective of a male writer-director. “It opens up a whole conversation about what a story is and how much of a story belongs to the person telling the story and how much belongs to the person receiving the story,” he says. 

Men Rory Kinnear

“The question you ask has an inference in it and I’m not sure the inference is true. If I were to say to you, for example, that one interpretation of this story is that it’s a man feeling a sense of horror either about themselves or other men or both, then why wouldn’t that be a story a man should tell? I think you’re potentially presupposing something. Now what you’re presupposing may or may not be true, but that’s the key: it may or may not be true. That for me would infer something about your interpretation of the story, which may not necessarily align with my motivations for writing the story.”

With multiple interpretations very much available, Men is certainly a film that will provoke debate, not least with the visceral rollercoaster of body horror Garland unleashes in the final reel – a nightmarish combo-punch of grotesque prosthetics, buckets of viscous goo and some impressive CGI. The final reels of Garland’s previous directorial outings Ex Machina and Annihilation are certainly memorable, but Men usurps them with a set piece that boasts the power to burn itself on to the retinas of everyone who sees it.

“What you saw on set required a lot of faith from the actors that this was going to work out. It’s always scary for actors, I think,” Garland admits. “Some of what you see is just prosthetics with no visual effects, and sometimes the shot is almost entirely visual effects. What it means is that for the people on set, sometimes they’re looking at something and thinking ‘I get it’ and sometimes it’s a complete leap of faith.”

A leap of faith? That probably just about sums Men up as a cinematic experience. But with Garland planning to leave directing behind after Civil War, what will he do next? Fans would certainly love him to return to the world of 2012’s Dredd, in which he gave the cult comic book character something they were denied by Sylvester Stallone in the ’90s. 

jessie-buckley men

Garland calls Dredd a “brilliant character” but isn’t keen to return to Mega-City One, despite having ideas for where the character would be best suited. “What I think should happen with Dredd is a TV show. It’s an incredible opportunity to exploit in a multi-season show, with lots of characters and interlocking storylines, exactly as 2000 AD and John Wagner have been doing for decades and decades.”

So it’s not directing and it’s not Dredd. But whatever Alex Garland does next, it will certainly be unique and interesting. You might be terrified, enthralled or even – as Garland would probably want – antagonised.

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