Alex Garland’s latest film, Men, takes us on an eerie and elliptical journey through the psyche of Harper Marlowe, a British woman, played by Jessie Buckley, who makes a trip from London to the countryside to recover from her husband’s abuse and suicide. After threatening to kill himself if Harper leaves her, James (Paapa Essiedue) does just that, turning her in on herself in a miasma of blame and self-loathing that propels her out of their shared Thameside apartment at the first opportunity. Upon arriving in the small village of Cotson, Harper briefly sinks into the peaceful countryside, only for a succession of men, all of them played by Rory Kinnear, to intrude upon her time and space as so many phantoms of her deceased husband.
In many ways, Men clarifies, quite acutely, what makes Garland’s visual style so distinct and unique. Garland came of age as a writer in the late 90s, when science fiction abounded with two particular preoccupations: water, and the colour green. In films like The Matrix, Dark City, Strange Days and The Thirteenth Floor, water was both the last relic of analog hardware, and the portal to a more fluid digital future that was nearly always figured in terms of a dank, mouldy green, as if the cyberworld was lurking just beyond the grimiest and dirtiest parts of our physical cityscapes. From the lurid green hues of the matrix itself, to the emerald filters of Alex Proyas’ vision, mouldy decay became a kind of threshold at which it was possible to glimpse a world that emerged from the material universe, but was also somehow beyond it.
In other words, these were films that contrasted nature and technology, imagining a post-natural future in which humans were entirely dependent on, or conflated with, digital technology. While Garland’s films abound with the same motifs of green and water, his approach to them is somewhat different. For one thing, he tends to traffic in a much lusher and lighter green than his late 90s forebears, while water is nearly always a source of sustenance in his films, rather than a threat or threshold to technology. Combined with his overwhelming focus on fertility, fecundity and the sheer multiplicity of biological experience, Garland offers a more provocative proposition than even The Matrix – namely, that nature itself is unnatural, insofar as it is infinitely more alien than any system we can project onto it.
Garland’s films thus exemplify what Timothy Morton has described as ecology without nature, evoking the systems that drive the biological world while untethering us from the ways in which humans literally naturalise that world, and transform it into an extension of ourselves. Another way of putting it is that humans are dramatically decentred in Garland’s ecology, which opposes nature and naturalism, suggesting that nature is inherently science fictional if we look at it for long enough. Most of his films focus on ambiguous and amorphous zones – the island in The Beach, the retreat in Ex Machina, the shimmer in Annihilation, the forest between the public and private offices in Devs – where nature reasserts its capacity to displace and confound us by virtue of its sheer fractallated precision, versatility and fertility.
Part of what makes Men so striking is that Garland situates this unnatural nature in the heart of the English countryside, rather than reaching for exotic foreign locales to evoke it. In doing so, he dovetails naturalism with natural history, setting them both against this more aleatory nature, which emerges uncannily from the most placidly pastoral visions of his career. Just as nature is already unnatural, England is already foreign in Men, although this dissonance takes a little while to emerge. Our first sense of it comes when Garland pairs his fluorescent green, hyper-lush aesthetic with the folk pastoral of Cotson, which we (and Harper) first encounter as a series of glimpses – from her car, and then from her house – of bluebells, fields and a church spire peeking through the trees. When she arrives at this rental property, she’s greeted by the landlord, Geoffrey, the first character played by Kinnear, who completes this folky scene – he has bad teeth, a stiff upper lip, and proffers so many old-world platitudes that Harper can only depict him, to one of her friends, as “a very specific type…very country.”
On top of that, the house itself seems straight out of Midsomer Murders, revolving around a garden and a conservatory. Yet these two foci also allow Garland’s brilliant green to percolate inside the house, partly because there are so many sightlines of the garden, and partly because the owners have so many indoor plants, all of which are just as vivid as if they’ve received a fresh burst of rain outside. The house itself is like a living thing, and responds to rain as organically as a living thing – especially the television, which grows hyperactive whenever there is a storm on the horizon. Again, water, a limit-case for technology in Garland’s forebears, becomes a form of technology here, no different in kind from television.
By contrast, the flashbacks to Harper’s London home are presented in a dull red. No doubt, these capture the emotional import of witnessing her husband’s suicide fall (which we also see in several of the flashbacks), but this shift in palette is still a bit surprising given that Harper’s apartment looks out on the Thames, the largest single body of water we see in the film. That Garland chooses to situate his science fictional lushness in the heart of the British countryside, rather than in the conjunction of river and technology at the core of the metropolis, speaks to the kernel of his paradoxical project: namely, to convince us that there is more true science fiction, and more technology sublimity, in nature than in “technology.”
Harper wastes no time communing with this science fictional sublime, and spends her first morning taking a solitary stroll in the woods. As she explores deeper, a light rain starts to fall, buoying her spirits for the first time since the suicide, before the storm breaks with a sense of revelation, and the woods intensify to an almost unbelievably green hue, which Garland condenses in turn to a patch of brilliant light at the end of an old rail tunnel. At this point, the film reaches pure sci-fi pastoral, producing a maximal communion with the landscape that rediscovers the spirit of British Romanticism – not as a counterpoint to technologised urban life, but as extension, culmination and apotheosis of it. As in William Wordsworth’s “Lyrical Ballads,” the film seems to have bypassed language to speak directly in the common language of the landscape, as Garland largely eschews dialogue, floods his scenes with ambient sounds (especially bird song), and relegates most of Harper’s conversation to the phone, or flashback.
Harper’s walk also converges history and natural history, denaturalising and distancing us from English history in the process. The result is quite close to folk horror, as Harper explores the Druid imagery carved into a church, which Garland also absorbs into the syntax of the film, until it feels more like we’re participating in an arcane ritual than passively watching a fictional narrative. This often reminded me of Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale, which reaches even further back into the English literary canon, to Chaucer, as the best vehicle for evoking the technological sublime of living under threat of bombing during WWII.
No surprise, then, that Harper reaches this cusp between nature and natural history (or naturalism) at the first relic of the past she encounters, in the form of this abandoned rail tunnel. The Romantics often imagined the Aeolian Harp, a harp that is blown by the breeze, as an apt metaphor for letting the landscape speak for and through them, and Harper follows in their wake now, taking the Gregorian chants that are playing diegetically over the soundtrack, and using the tunnel to fashion them into the diegetic space of the film. Realising that the length and shape of the tunnel echoes sounds for several minutes, she treats it like a tympanum, singing out a sequence of notes that reverberate into a one-woman polyphony that gives musical expression to the vivid green of the film as Garland abstracts it in shots taken from a distance, up close, and then of her silhouette reflected in a pearly, placid puddle.
At this exact moment, however, the next of the film’s many men arrives, at the other end of the tunnel, in an attempt to regulate this space between nature and naturalism, and so re- naturalise nature in accordance with the proper (male) order of things. This man is a mere blip at the other end of the tunnel, but he’s enough to obscure the green light, and turn the woods tunnel-like when Harper emerges, from the narrow stretch of grass just outside, to the suddenly claustrophobic path back to her house. At the cusp between the woods and fields, this man reveals himself to be a naked vagrant, who follows Harper, stalks her, and leads her to call the police. From here, man after man, all played by Kinnear, either re-enact her husband’s abuse, or the abusive narratives that followed it, including a vicar who blames Harper for it (“you must wonder why you drove him to it”), a younger man wearing a woman’s mask who hurls bitter invective at her when she refuses to “play” with him, and the local police constable, who blithely advises her to regard her stalker’s attention as a compliment.
In another film, this could easily turn into a fairly one-dimensional allegory of trauma, or of the #MeToo movement, but by converging it with his own unnatural naturalism, Garland gives it more depth and resonance. Policing women’s desires, in his worldview, is part of this broader tendency to police what is and isn’t natural, which he also presents as a highly English proclivity, meaning that Harper’s standoff with these men, one of whom appears “naturally” naked as an excuse for abuse, gradually distort and disrupt her house. On the one hand, the main man in the film, and the first person we see played by Kinnear, is the landlord, who has control over the property, which grows redder in tone to match the parched London flashbacks as the third act gets underway. On the other hand, the house is also itself a tympanum for the brilliant green outside, refracting and distilling it into ever more vivid hues.
This standoff between Harper and the men, with the house as the venue, comes down to three extremely visceral sequences, each of which gravitates the film towards body horror. In the first, the naked man gradually incorporates stones and sticks into his bodily cavities, attempting to reclaim nature as his own in the most literal way. In the second, Harper hits back by trapping this man’s hand in the mailbox of the house with a knife, forcing him to slice between his second and third fingers to remove it. The phallic potency of her knife turns his hand into a vaginal surrogate, collapsing the distinction between men and women in preparation for the third and most brutal spectacle, in which this man gives birth to one of the other men, who continues the process, until all of the men in the film have been born from each other. Even more viscerally, each man gives birth through a different orifice, culminating with James, Harper’s dead husband, coming out of the final man’s open mouth.
The naked man’s efforts to stuff sticks and stones into his body pales in comparison to these final images, which not only collapse men into women, but denature childbirth itself into an act that can emerge from any part of the body. With that “natural” threshold removed, the natural world re-emerges at a cosmic scale, in the brilliant wheel of stars that Garland foregrounds during the final chase scene, which brings Harper back to her husband. She now reprises the same stance with her knife, ambivalently, and the film ends on that cusp, as if anxious to commit too strongly to one summative image of the natural world. Many of these final moments are reminiscent of 70s chamber dramas about the fragility of the female psyche (especially Robert Altman’s Images), but the difference here is that Garland firmly situates these visions of domestic-psychotic decay as part of a broader male imperative to police the threshold between natural and unnatural emotion. Call it an artist involuting the naturalism of his own voice, giving birth out of his mouth, in a remarkably bold and bracing manner.