Alex Garland’s Men offers a terrifying examination of grief that brims with sinister deeds and is punctuated by shocking moments. In the British writer-director’s film, Harper (Jessie Buckley) drives into the country to get away from London, having seen her husband James (I May Destroy You‘s Paapa Essiedu) fall to his death outside their riverside flat. 

At the beautiful country house Harper has rented, affable but odd Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) shows her round, but as she starts to settle in, a calming country walk ends when a flasher appears out of nowhere. Things take an increasingly creepy turn when the naked man later tries to break into Harper’s house while she works, and as Men progresses, events in the unnamed village only become stranger.

Men is Garland’s third official feature as writer-director after smart sci-fi pair Ex Machina (2014) and Annihilation (2018). These followed a screenwriting career that included three films for Danny Boyle: the adaptation of his own novel The Beach (2000), 28 Days Later… (2002) and Sunshine (2007). He also contributed uncredited rewrites to 28 Weeks Later (2007) and uncredited direction on Dredd (2012), and most recently created, wrote and directed the 2020 sci-fi TV series Devs. 

Prior to Men’s European premiere in the Directors’ Fortnight strand at Cannes Film Festival, we chatted to Garland about grief, the #MeToo movement and the long shadow cast by The Wicker Man (1973).

Jessie Buckley and Alex Garland in production on Men (2022)

How did you come up with this story?

I first wrote a script with this subject matter about 15 years ago. It was between writing Sunshine and Never Let Me Go (2010). I rewrote it four or five times over the years. I can hardly remember, it was such a long time ago, but it all started with the imagery of a Green Man that you find in churches and pub names or hidden away in bits of architecture.

Men deals with types of masculinity, and there are #MeToo elements. 

#MeToo was like a magnifying glass that focused a lot of people’s attention, but to my memory – I’m 52 – there was still attention on that stuff prior to [the movement] and there was a lot of awareness of [its issues]. It’s the kind of thing my parents might have spoken about in the 1970s. They’d have used slightly different terms, but they’d have been talking about exactly the same thing. You could find any number of writers or commentators or activists who would be addressing this.

You seem as though you’re satirising a lot of things and commenting on grief, there’s perhaps a look at motherhood in there, among other topics.

Usually what I try to do is I’ll make a film that has an argument in it, but the argument is not there if people don’t see it or are not interested in it, or don’t want it. 

For example, a film like Ex Machina could be just a sci-fi story about a robot escaping, or it could be seen as a discussion on objectification or gender or whatever you want to say it is. In Men, I wanted it to be able to function as just a ghost story, so a woman has lost her husband in extreme circumstances. She goes away to process it, and in processing it effectively finds herself haunted by memories, or maybe a kind of physical manifestation of her husband or his anger, his unreasonableness, or whatever you want to call it.

Then there’s a bunch of other stuff, and it’s layered. The key thing from my point of view is that none of the different layers are in conflict with each other. They can all just sit side by side and the viewer can find their own interpretations, or find their own levels that they’re interested in or not interested in. I just step back and say, “There’s the film, take it or leave it.”

Men (2022)

You’ve got Rory Kinnear playing lots of different parts. What was your thinking behind that? 

It wasn’t the original idea. When I wrote it, I was assuming there would be lots of different actors, but at a certain point I thought there was something interesting about the title being a plural and having one person doing all these roles. 

I like setting up questions without necessarily forcing an answer. I think films often feel a need to provide answers to all the questions. In the case of Jessie Buckley’s character, if I have one actor playing all the parts, what inference can the audience draw from that? One of them might be, “Oh, well, all these men are the same, but she doesn’t realise it. Or she sees all men as the same, but they’re not.” They’re two inferences that sound very similar, but have really very, very different implications. So that bit of casting just jams that kind of question into the story. 

Rory playing multiple parts reminded me of Being John Malkovich (1999).

I showed it to a friend of mine after I’d finished it and he said, “Oh, you’ve made an Ealing comedy.” Somewhere in me, I definitely was thinking about Alec Guinness [playing multiple parts in Kind Hearts and Coronets, 1949].

I was always a huge fan of Rory Kinnear’s dad, Roy. Men is actually quite an old-fashioned film in lots of ways and there was some weird contact with films I’d grown up with, whether it was Ealing comedies or Hammer movies or the funny psychedelia of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory [which Roy Kinnear had a part in].

You mentioned earlier that you saw it as a ghost story. It’s folk horror in some ways.

If somebody said, “Can you stick a label on it?” I think I’d say it was a folk horror movie.

Men (2022)

Are there any folk horror films or ghost stories that influenced it?

In my mind, I’d have seen it as folk horror because of things like the Green Man and the countryside and the woods and the slightly psychedelic aspects. It’s impossible, or very difficult, to make a film like that without thinking of the original Wicker Man (1973). All folk horror that comes after The Wicker Man owes it something, in the same way that all deep-space movies owe something to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). 

But past that I didn’t really think about it because if I thought about it too much, it would probably freeze me up and I wouldn’t do anything else.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

What about outside of the genre? 

At one point it was Attack on Titan (2013 to 2020), an anime TV series I was watching with my daughter while we were in pre-production. I realised how clever and unusual it was in dealing with the human form. 

You could say that within Men, there’s body horror, where the equivalent of The Wicker Man or 2001 is several of the David Cronenberg films. But also I kept thinking of An American Werewolf in London (1981). Partly because that’s got folk horror in it, with the Slaughtered Lamb pub and the werewolf from the moors, but also because I was thinking about the very, very high-level [practical] special effects work that you saw done in the ’80s in things like David Cronenberg and The Thing (1982) and An American Werewolf in London. 

I remember seeing An American Werewolf in London for the first time and thinking, “Oh, they’ve really thought about what would happen if a human turned into a wolf.” They’d really worked it through and it was shocking. At the time, it was like the equivalent of seeing Jurassic Park (1993) when that first came out. It had a wow factor. 

Men is in cinemas from 1 June 2022.