Alex Garland explains why his new horror film Men is more 'gut-level' than Ex Machina
According to Alex Garland himself, there are two types of Alex Garland films. One involves stories that are slower, more cerebral, primarily concerned with big scientific questions: think Garland's 2014 directorial debut Ex Machina or his recent FX miniseries Devs. On the other end of his artistic spectrum, there are the movies that their own creator describes as "aggressive," more interested in images and sensations than ideas.
And make no mistake: Garland's latest film, Men, an increasingly angry and surreal piece of folk horror, is definitely in the second category.
"In my mind, a film like Men is connected to a film like Annihilation," Garland tells EW exclusively. "They're very much about how you're feeling about something. Men is a gut-level film. I'm proud of Ex Machina, I really love it, but it's an intellectual film. Men is not, I think."
Men's official cast list is only four names long. Star Jessie Buckley appears in nearly every frame as Harper, a young woman who has rented a secluded vacation home in the English countryside as a reprieve from recent relationship turmoil. As she settles into her new surroundings, viewers are treated to a steady supply of flashbacks obliquely detailing what happened between Harper and her husband (Paapa Essiedu) back in London.
It's easy to denote these different points in space and time thanks to Men's powerful use of color. Flashbacks to city life paint the screen in an inflamed orange, while present-day rural scenes are suffused in verdant green. The inside of her rented house, meanwhile, is ominously red.
"It's like giving the viewer a nudge, somehow," Garland says. "When I say it's a slightly aggressive film, that's what I mean: It's coming at the viewer. It's a gentle movie sometimes, there's lots of silly humor in there, but it's also a bit delinquent."
Men is forthright with its thematic concerns, starting with that title. Garland has long wrestled with ideas about masculinity, dating back to his days as solely a screenwriter; the final act of 28 Days Later shows zombie-apocalypse survivors initially finding refuge in a military encampment, only to confront violent threats posed by an all-male society. Ex Machina is about two male scientists analyzing exclusively female robots — and though they say they're just debating the merits of artificial intelligence, they're also running up against female sexuality. Annihilation is about a team of woman scientists exploring an alien landscape that men have failed to quantify.
"It comes up a lot, in different ways," Garland admits. "With Men, I just sort of thought, 'Screw it, I'm just gonna go straight into this.' Maybe it's just that with Men, instead of running underneath, it sits there on the surface."
As Harper settles in — or tries to — various strangers, all of them men, impose their presence on her in ways that sensitize viewers to casual aggression, as well as something much more forward. Symbols abound: What is the meaning of the Green Man who recurs throughout the film? Why do so many of the non-Harper characters share the same face (that of actor Rory Kinnear)?
Is it fair to call Men a feminist horror film? Garland is staying mum for now. He describes it as "a horror movie about a sense of horror," or, even more simply, "a ghost story." If audience members feel it evokes #MeToo resonances about the pervasiveness of sexual harassment, that's up to them, he contends.
"A huge amount of it is about how the viewer responds to it," Garland says. "The film is about giving 50 percent of something, which could be touchstones, and the viewer is providing another 50 percent. If that is your response to it, I'm fascinated by that."
"I'm in my early 50s," he continues, "and my main problem with film tends to be feeling bored. I sort of feel like I know where this is gonna go, I feel like I've seen this or that sequence of events play out an unbelievable number of times. I'm hoping to disrupt that a bit."
Horror movies especially have gained from Garland's playfulness. "People feel like, 'Oh, I know what's gonna happen now,'" the director says. "But if you can just slightly mess with that, and keep them on their toes — that's the plan, anyway."
Men hits theaters May 20, distributed by A24.
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