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The story behind Men, the mind-melting new horror from A24

Is it an insightful study of gender and trauma, or a sick joke? Lead actors Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear try to explain

There’s no escaping Men. A few days after its premiere, Alex Garland’s confrontational horror is already sparking arguments about its ending. Is it insightful or insulting about gender and trauma? Is it a poetic, mind-melting, visual statement, or an elaborate joke on the viewer? And how did Garland get A24 to fund a movie with such a gnarly, nasty, provocative third act that’s simultaneously in-your-face and on-the-nose yet leaves you absolutely baffled?

All that’s certain about Garland’s follow-up to Ex Machina and Annihilation is that it’s about men. Except it’s about one man, played by Paapa Essiedu. Or 10 embodied by Rory Kinnear. No, wait, it’s about one woman, depicted by Jessie Buckley. It’s definitely, definitely that. Or it’s a microcosm of every human relationship between a man and a woman, the toxic masculinity that’s poisoning the planet, and a biological jealousy that’s expressed in the most Cronenbergian way possible. But wait, the protagonist’s surname is Marlowe and there are numerous references to Shakespeare. Is it all an extravagant riff on artistic theft? And what’s up with the apple symbolism, the Sheela-Na-Gig statues, and the dead crow with a Marilyn Monroe mask?

When I meet Buckley and Kinnear in Soho Hotel in late May, they’re keen not to Men-splain the movie’s men-y mysteries. “It exists on a primal level, beyond thought,” says Kinnear, 44, who forms about 85 per cent of the cast. “That last sequence is so earthly and fundamental, it’s asking to exist within those places of ourselves, rather than necessarily be like: ‘If I think about this long enough, I will solve it.’”

“Alex is giving us a fable of some sort, which has returned throughout time, and will probably return throughout time,” says Buckley, 32. “He’s offering a debate and discussion with whatever you want to see in it.” So it’s like looking at a painting? “You can take it in whatever way you want. I went to the Francis Bacon exhibition, Man and Beast, a few weeks ago, and I was like, ‘Oh, God, there are similarities within these two worlds!’”

At a rented cottage in Coston, Harper Marlowe (Buckley) is seeking a few days secluded in nature following the death of her husband, James (Essiedu). In their final moments, James threatened suicide if Harper proceeded with divorce; he then slipped off a balcony upstairs, his falling body visible through the window in an image sketched forever in Harper’s memory.

Yet in this getaway pad, Harper is surrounded by men with an identical bone structure. There’s the bumbling landlord. A stranger who flashes his penis in the woods. A vicar with wandering hands. A policeman who laughs off Harper’s complaints. All these characters, including a nine-year-old boy with a CGI-enhanced head, are played by Kinnear with unnerving realism. Could it be that after James’s revenge, Harper views all men as one singular, manipulative person?

“The catalyst for the film is the grief that comes from the end of that relationship,” says Buckley. “What do you do with something that vibrates around you after it happens? It’s never clean-cut, it’s never finite. Our relationship with each other is never something that just finishes and ends.”

When an actor plays multiple roles, it’s typically for comedy: Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor or Mike Myers in Austin Powers. But the Kinnear chameleonism generates a shifting unease as each disparate character may as well be giving birth to the next oddball that appears. With Harper never acknowledging they’re the same person, the viewer is placed into a befuddled headspace.

“I don’t want people going away thinking about the fact I played all these parts,” says Kinnear. “I’d be very happy if they don’t realise. It’s not to do with virtuosity. It’s a seriousness of purpose that reflects Harper’s journey.’”

“The catalyst for the film is the grief that comes from the end of that relationship. What do you do with something that vibrates around you after it happens? It’s never clean-cut, it’s never finite” – Jessie Buckley

Kinnear has a history of playing monsters. He was The Creature in Penny Dreadful and Denis Thatcher in The Long Walk to Finchley. Buckley, too, has a knack for being utterly watchable amidst a character’s existential malaise. In The Lost Daughter and i’m thinking of ending things, the Irish actor produces high drama out of simple day-to-day actions, and in Men there’s a captivating 10-minute sequence in which Harper simply strolls through the woods, humming a melody to herself. “We all have everything in us, and we’re all capable of doing everything,” Buckley says. “So you offer up as complex a person as possible, and then you just let them go.”

Garland, notably, wrote the first draft of Men around 15 years ago, right around the time he adapted Never Let Me Go for screen. Both films tackle the unwritten rules of society and an awareness of the organs within our body. Garland enthusiasts will also detect a continued preoccupation with blending nature and genre. “Alex was completely fastidious in the way I looked as the Green Man,” Kinnear says. “The fact it developed, the different iterations, the way the blood fell on my face. Alex did the last 20 minutes of makeup, basically.”

“The Green Man has unconsciously been in our culture everywhere,” says Buckley. “It’s pagan symbolism for life, death, seasons, growing, and dying. In Annihilation, there were also those symbols of death.”

“Humans distinguish themselves from the natural world but they’re part of it,” adds Kinnear. “Both Never Let Me Go and Men remind us that we’re animals of the earth.”

During the interview, I bring up numerous theories. Some of the more abstract ones (Harper bringing a laptop on holiday is Garland subconsciously conveying his lack of a work/life balance, and explains why he recently announced he wants to quit directing) are met with: “You’ve got to ask Alex.” But isn’t the film suggesting a man can never truly understand how a woman feels?

“You’ve got to be curious with each other,” says Buckley. “There are parts of men I’ll never understand, and there are parts of women I’ll never understand. But I’d at least try. I made this film with amazing men and women, and we were all in conversation with each other. If you try to live linearly, you’re not going to be living at all. This is how our world exists.”

“There are parts of men I’ll never understand, and there are parts of women I’ll never understand. But I’d at least try... If you try to live linearly, you’re not going to be living at all” – Jessie Buckley

However, one example of Buckley’s alterations to Men – whether as a woman reading a man’s script, or just as a smart, talented actor with opinions – is Harper’s reaction during the elongated, climactic freakout. Instead of screaming in terror, Harper behaves as if she’s annoyed and dismissive. At least, that’s my phrasing of it.

“I don’t think she’s annoyed or dismissive,” says Buckley. “For me, it’s more like, ‘I can’t hold your hand anymore. I’m not scared of you. I’ve fought with you. I’ve run from you. I’ve been terrorised. I’ve screamed at you. And I’m not doing that anymore. Nothing I do is going to give you what you have to ultimately understand within yourself. You’ve got to work through your own pain and trauma, and then we can have a conversation.’”

Either way, Men will linger in your memory. Just as Harper is haunted by James’s death due to its lack of resolution, the infinite readings of Garland’s film will mean the arguments will continue for years to come. “It’s not a Rubik’s Cube,” Kinnear says. “What it provokes in us, both emotionally and intellectually, is valid. How we respond says as much about ourselves as it does about Alex and his film.”

Men is out in UK and Irish cinemas on June 1