Garland originally envisioned a sequence along the lines of “American Werewolf in London,” but the Japanese cartoon 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 the one thing audiences will definitely be talking about as they stumble out of his new film “Men” is the ending. This symbol-laden 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 in the English countryside to recover from the sudden, violent death of her husband James (Pappa Essediu), who plunged off the roof of their London apartment complex before her eyes.
Throughout Harper’s stay at this sprawling house, she’s tormented by a barrage of men, all played by Rory Kinnear: first, the daffy groundskeeper Geoffrey, then a lurching naked man who emerges from the woods, then later a gaslighting vicar, a handsy barfly, and even, at one point, a nasty little boy whose face is superimposed with Kinnear’s own.
But in the film’s final moments, the lowkey surrealism and slasher movie set pieces thrown Buckley’s way take on a much weirder, monstrous, body-horror form. In the climactic scene, every version of Rory Kinnear we’ve seen so far gives birth to the next, in a moment writer/director Garland describes as a “rolling birth” sequence. Through a CGI vagina that forms below the horrifically inflating torso of Kinnear’s characters, another one bursts forth, then another, and another, starting on the outside grounds of the house as the entity, well, births its way repeatedly into the house like a kind of human slinky.
Finally, Harper is presented with James, naked and doused in embryonic fluids, who tells her all he wanted was her love. Even in death (or birth?), he’s manipulative as ever, as early flashbacks to the couple’s final moments together indicate a tendency to gaslight — including threatening to kill himself when she threatened divorce.
This bloody, repulsive, out-of-body moment and its symbolic meanings even Garland couldn’t entirely explain in a recent interview with IndieWire — or at least was loath to. That’s for the audience to decode. But he can speak to the synthesis of prosthetics, visual effects, and troubling conditions that birthed the moment.
Garland said that this ending was “always the destination, but it didn’t [originally] take the same form that it did in the finished movie.” Garland first wrote the script 15 years ago, only returning to it in 2020. Originally, he had some much more recognizable horror-movie iconography in mind, specifically the body-morphing horror movies of the 1980s.
“In the original versions of the script, it was mutations. I first wrote it as mutations, and it didn’t become a rolling birth sequence until well, it was actually during pre-production,” he said. “We were trying to visualize how these mutations would look and there was just something wrong. It felt weak. It didn’t feel sort of theoretically, as strong as it could be. What would happen is while I was trying to visualize it, I ended up effectively rehashing imagery from like David Cronenberg movies or ‘The Thing’ or even ‘American Werewolf in London.’”
Certainly, the sequence invites those comparisons, as in Robin R. Bottin’s creature work on “The Thing” or Rick Baker’s Oscar-winning lycanthropic transformation in “American Werewolf,” where what is at first recognizably human then becomes something other than human via monstrous metamorphosis. But instead, Garland along with his visual effects team (including Austin Aplin, VFX producer on the alien landscape of Garland’s “Annihilation”) pushed for something that brought the narrative more full circle — as the cycles of birth and death stalk the movie’s mythology through (vaguely sketched) visual references to the Sheela Na Gig, a Gaelic symbol of fertility.
“There’s a long history in body horror which has to do with bones shifting under flesh and muscles contorting or expanding, stuff like that,” Garland said. “Everything I did felt like I was reworking imagery that I felt I knew and therefore everybody knew and, and also felt thematically a bit weak. I just knew there was something missing.”
But rather than lift from the titans of body horror such as 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 found myself watching an animated TV show with my daughter, ‘Attack on Titan.’ I was really struck by how, how little they did, in a way, how much of what made the Titans frightening was actually kind of pathetic, but also sort of banal,” he said. “Like, they’d slightly enlarge eyes or they’d give people awkward movements. It felt sort of weirdly subtle, or weirdly nuanced, but incredibly powerful. What I thought is they’ve been much more imaginative and braver than the kinds of thoughts that I’ve been having because I kept trying to layer things on top of each other. It would be like the equivalent of adding back wings and multiple legs and five mouths, and it was still not scary enough. I had another couple of eyes on it.”
He said that “Attack on Titan” had “this weird purity to it, and it made me work harder and think harder, and also think about naked forms. Usually, when we present naked forms, there’s a tendency that comes partly from self-consciousness but also just from art, naked statues, that naked forms are presented and shaped and arranged. If someone is just walking across the room picking something up, it’s un-self-conscious, and I felt like ‘Attack on Titan’ was picking up on the un-self-conscious bits between arranged forms.”
Courtesy Everett Collection
Love it, hate it, or dismiss it as pretentiousness gone unchecked, the sequence is a marvel of prosthetics and VFX working in tandem. But the reality of the shoot, Garland said, “was a fucking nightmare, particularly for Rory. He was very, very cold. He was doing something that I think required a lot of courage. From him, because he’s not wearing clothes. It’s freezing. There’s a whole bunch of crew around him all in puffer jackets, holding booms and laying down camera tracks and, and he’s doing something that is inherently kind of bound to trigger a whole bunch of just very human self-conscious impulses.”
Garland said that he “worried about him a lot” but that Kinnear was “brave and straightforward and not bullshitty about it. He just got on with it. Some actors, in a way, would have very understandably made those two weeks of shooting really, really difficult, but he was so game. If you can imagine, you’re doing all that shit in -2 [degrees], and you’re also crawling out of a prosthetic that has no relationship with anything real. It looks silly. It looks totally ridiculous. He put a lot of trust in everybody around him. I felt very grateful to him, really, and very admiring.”
But what does it all mean? Even the director doesn’t have that answer for you.
“Men” is now in theaters from A24.