Garland originally had a sequence in mind along the lines of American Werewolf in London, but the Japanese animation pushed him into a more innovative body horror direction.
[Editor’s note: The following article contains major spoilers for the ending of “Men.”]
Alex Garland knows that the one thing viewers will definitely be talking about when they stumble out of his new movie, Men, is the ending. This symbolic and occasionally very unsubtle meditation on male toxicity and gaslighting has roots in surrealism as Harper (Jessie Buckley) takes an inevitably ill-conceived solo holiday to the English countryside to recover from the sudden, violent death of her husband James (Pappa). recover Essediu) who fell from the roof of her London apartment complex before her eyes.
During Harper’s stay in this sprawling home, she is tormented by a barrage of men, all played by Rory Kinnear: first goofy groundsman Geoffrey, then a staggering naked man who emerges from the woods, then later a gaslight vicar, a handy barfly , and even a mean little boy at one point with his face superimposed on Kinnear’s own.
But in the film’s final moments, the understated surrealism and slasher film set pieces thrown in Buckley’s path take on a much stranger, monstrously body-horror form. In the climax scene, every version of Rory Kinnear we’ve seen so far gives birth to the next, in what writer/director Garland describes as a “rolling birth sequence” moment. Through a CGI vagina that forms beneath the horribly distending torso of Kinnear’s characters, another erupts, then another, and another, beginning on the grounds of the house as the entity, well, repeats its path like one Kind indoors births from human slinky.
Finally, Harper James is presented, naked and doused in embryonic fluids, who tells her all he wanted was her love. Even in death (or at birth?), he’s as manipulative as ever, as early flashbacks to the couple’s final moments together suggest a tendency to gaslight — including threatening to kill herself when she threatened divorce.
Even Garland couldn’t fully explain this gory, repulsive, out-of-body moment and its symbolic meaning in a recent interview with IndieWire — or at least was reluctant to do so. That’s for the audience to decipher. But he can talk about the synthesis of prosthetics, visual effects, and unsettling conditions that created the moment.
Garland said that ending “was always the goal, but it wasn’t [originally] take on the same form as in the finished film.” Garland first wrote the screenplay 15 years ago and didn’t return to it until 2020. He originally had a much more recognizable horror film iconography in mind, particularly the body-altering horror films of the 1980s.
“In the original versions of the script, it was mutations. I wrote it as mutations first, and it didn’t become a continuous birth sequence until it was good, it was actually during pre-production,” he said. “We were trying to imagine what these mutations would look like and something just wasn’t right. It felt weak. It didn’t theoretically feel as strong as it could be. What happened was that while I was trying to visualize it, I ended up effectively rehashing images from David Cronenberg films or The Thing or even American Werewolf in London.”
Certainly the sequence invites such comparisons as in Robin R. Bottin’s creature work in The Thing or Rick Baker’s Oscar-winning lycanthropic transformation in American Werewolf, where what is initially recognizable human then becomes something Miscellaneous than man through monstrous metamorphosis. But instead, Garland, along with his visual effects team (including Austin Aplin, VFX producer for the alien landscape of Garland’s “Annihilation”), pushed for something that would close the loop of the narrative – while the cycles of birth and death evoke the mythology of the Throughout the film are (vaguely sketched) visual references to Sheela Na Gig, a Gaelic symbol of fertility.
“Body horror has a long history that has to do with bones moving under flesh and muscles twisting or stretching, stuff like that,” Garland said. “Everything I did felt like I was reworking images that I thought I knew and therefore everyone knew and also felt a bit weak thematically. I just knew something was missing.”
But instead of standing out from body horror titans like David Cronenberg and John Carpenter, Garland found unlikely inspiration in the Japanese animated series Attack on Titan.
“It was during a Christmas break and I was watching an animated TV show, ‘Attack on Titan,’ with my daughter. I was really struck by how little they did in a way, how much of what made the Titans scary was actually kind of pathetic but also kind of mundane,” he said. “For example, they would enlarge the eyes slightly or give people awkward movements. It felt kind of oddly subtle or oddly nuanced, but incredibly powerful. What I thought was that they were a lot more imaginative and daring than the kind of thoughts I had because I kept trying to layer things. It would be like adding back wings and multiple legs and five mouths, and it still wasn’t scary enough. I still had a few eyes on it.”
He said that “Attack on Titan” “had this weird purity about it, and it made me work harder and think harder and think about bare forms too. When we present nude forms there is usually a tendency, partly coming out of self-awareness but also just art, nude statues, that naked forms are presented and shaped and arranged. When someone just walks across the room and picks something up, that’s at ease, and I felt like Attack on Titan picked up the at ease bits between arranged shapes.”
Courtesy of the Everett Collection
Love it, hate it or dismiss it as uncontrolled hubris, the sequence is a marvel of prosthetics and VFX working together. But the reality of the shoot, Garland said, “was a bloody nightmare, especially for Rory. He was very, very cold. He did something that I think took a lot of courage. From him for not wearing any clothes. It freezes. There’s a whole bunch of crew members all around him, all in down jackets, holding booms and laying camera trails, and he’s doing something that inherently inevitably triggers a whole bunch of just very human, confident impulses.”
Garland said he was “very concerned about him” but that Kinnear was “brave and straight forward and not crappy. He just kept going. Understandably, some actors would have made those two weeks of filming very, very difficult, but he was so brave. If you can imagine, do all that shit in -2 [degrees], and you also crawl out of a prosthesis that has no relation to anything real. It looks silly. It looks totally weird. He placed great trust in everyone around him. I was really very grateful to him and very admiring.”
But what does all this mean? Not even the director has that answer for you.
Men is in theaters now from A24.