Movies

Three Critics Attempt to Make Sense of Men’s Wild Twist Ending

What happened? What, exactly, is Alex Garland trying to say? And does it make any sense?

A bloodied, naked man in a hole.
Rory Kinnear in Men. A24

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On this week’s episode of the Slate Culture Gabfest, the podcast’s three co-hosts discussed Men, the latest movie from Ex Machina and Annihilation writer-director Alex Garland. For their Slate Plus segment, which is only available for Slate Plus members to hear on the Slate Plus podcast feed, they grappled with the movie’s rather befuddling ending, which might leave you saying, as Jessie Buckley’s protagonist likes to say, “What?” A transcript of their conversation, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, follows. Naturally, there are spoilers. (To access all of the Culture Gabfest’s members-only segments and all of Slate’s culture stories, sign up for Slate Plus.)

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Julia Turner: Dana, can you please describe what happens in the final chunk of this movie and what you made of it?

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Dana Stevens: Essentially the big reveal at the end of this movie is, as far as I can tell, that this maybe fantasized Rory Kinnear figure, who has been both Jessie Buckley’s landlord at her country rental, and also the naked stalker who’s been standing around outside, and also this strange kind of village idiot kid who’s always hanging around, and the vicar who has a strange creepy scene with her, and a cop who gets called in to resolve the stalker issue, that character becomes this kind of monstrous Cronenbergian figure. All of those characters sequentially sort of give birth to each other in this long body-horror scene where each character appears, and then sort of puffs up in some grotesque way. They open up these faux vaginas somewhere in their bodies, sometimes in their stomach, or their head, or wherever, and then a fetal creature emerges that turns out to be the next Rory Kinnear incarnation. And they sort of chase her sequentially through the country house until …

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Turner: It turns into her dead husband.

Stevens: That’s right. And in fact, if anything, I thought, “Can we just get around to the part where it’s her dead husband? Because obviously he’s going to be the last one.”

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Stephen Metcalf: Obviously, yes.

Stevens: Right? Because the whole trauma narrative always has to be about, “Ah, we must penetrate to the true origin of the trauma.” So yes, finally it is the character not played by Rory Kinnear, but by Paapa Essiedu, who played her husband, who we only see in flashbacks, who killed himself in a very grisly way by jumping out the window. We’ve already seen before how his wrecked body looked when she found him outside afterward. And those same injuries are reflected in each one of these fetal Rory Kinnear people.

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So they all have a hand that’s been sliced in half, which also echoes an earlier chase scene where she slices the hand of the, I think, cop at that point who’s chasing her. They all have this one gross kind of foot that’s broken off. Anyway, they all have bodies that reflect the brokenness of the body of the husband who fell out the window. And then here’s the moment where I flat out don’t understand what the director Alex Garland was going for. So Paapa Essiedu, the already dead husband, finally emerges. And then she sort of hangs with him. Like, they plonk down on the couch and have this brief conversation where she says something like, “What is it that you want from me?” And doesn’t he just say, “I want to be loved,” or “I want your love,” or something like that?

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Turner: Yeah, all he wants is her love.

Stevens: And she’s holding an ax at that moment. The ax is the Chekhov’s gun that has been seen in the house since she first moved in. She finally gets the ax off the wall, and we think maybe there’s going to be some big showdown between them. Then after he says, “I just want your love,” am I wrong, or does Alex Garland cut to a title card that says Men? So you think it’s the end of the movie, but it’s not. There’s one little pop after that where it’s the next morning, and we see Jessie Buckley in the sunshine out in the yard wearing a bloodstained dress, as she had on the night before. But we don’t know what has happened to the emerged fetal husband character and her friend that Steve mentioned earlier, who is kind of the equivalent of the Lil Rel Howery character in Get Out, right? The friend from afar is giving her advice on the phone as she’s having this weird country weekend. The friend has now driven up because she called her the night before when the Rory Kinnear invasion happened. And the friend is pregnant, which is kind of a surprise, especially given that we just saw all of these men give birth to each other. And, I guess, there’s then a happy ending where the two smiling friends reunite on the lawn.

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So I have a lot of questions here. Even aside from the men giving birth to each other—which I think I know what Alex Garland was trying to metaphorically say, but I don’t necessarily think that it adds a lot to the movie—literally what was supposed to have happened after the ghost of her husband says, “I just wanted your love”? Does she then kill him, or does he disappear, or how is it resolved that she’s just hanging the next morning with her buddy in the yard?

Turner: I think there’s the theoretical, “What was he trying to say?” take, and then there’s also a bunch of practical, “What the fuck was actually happening in the movie?” questions. And to speak to the theoretical first, my read on the final scene when the men are birthing each crappy incarnation of themselves over and over again is that essentially what the movie seems to be suggesting is that childbirth is horrifying, is gross and scary and primal, and if someone were to come birth at you, you’d be like, “Holy shit,” right? “This is wild. This is grotesque.” And she becomes progressively less and less afraid. As she watches this slow-motion Russian doll birth scene, she just calms down and is sort of like, “Oh, men have nothing on me. Women can do this. We take this in stride. We don’t get fucking freaked out when humans emerge from our orifices. Men are so weak and stupid and disgusting. I can just hold this ax and accept the patheticness of my abusive dead husband who may or may not have killed himself. I don’t even have to kill him to feel powerful over him. I am the one with the power.” And that’s a fucked thing for this movie to say. The movie kind of endorses the view of the abusive husband that men’s lust for women is a disfiguring that has fucked and will fuck men up for all eternity, and that women are ultimately the ones with the power in the equation.

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And that is so misogynistic and fucked up. It made me so mad. Even as I was calming down and sort of feeling the female power of like, “Oh, she doesn’t need to be afraid because she’s the one with the ax.” And it’s like, “But women don’t have the ax in the world!” That was my read of that. But Steve, I’m dying to know what you made of the finale.

Metcalf: I’m still aghast. I scarcely know what to make of it. I was like, “OK, well I guess there’s some sort of pretend-deep ideas here about womanhood as birthing and ‘What would it mean if men could do it?’ ” But what’s the analogy? Men’s pain follows in patrilineal descent. Man’s curse is not giving birth, therefore we’re trapped in a kind of alienated self that takes revenge on women for the generative power we don’t have and will never have.

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I think that there’s a way in which this movie gets at misogyny, right? The really deep, neurotic fear I think a lot of men feel given their vulnerability vis-à-vis what they perceive to be the power of women over them in some sense. Now, I’m talking about heterosexual men, and not all heterosexual men, and so on, but I understand the impulse that Garland is working with. When I see misogyny, I see men revenging themselves on the power they perceive women as holding over them. And I think that’s what the movie’s about. And then at some deeper level, a kind of inability to honor what it is to bring forth new life, because it’s a power that the man, traditionally, doesn’t possess, right?

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But we haven’t even discussed the bizarre racial politics of the movie. So this husband who pulls two of the biggest all-time bullshit weakling man moves: He uses his capacity for violence against a woman who’s made him feel emotionally vulnerable, and then he just does this (nongendered) hateful thing, which is threatening to take his own life as a purely manipulative gesture. And he’s Black. And he’s depicted as possibly an immigrant because of his accent, so he’s socially vulnerable in these other ways. And I’m not saying that’s not interesting. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. I’m just saying that it’s gestured to but not explored.

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So you’re left with this person who inflicts this grotesque set of traumas on the woman he supposedly loves, haunting the entire film, even though he’s socially vulnerable, too. It doesn’t feel sympathetic. It just feels unresolved. And then why does this series of classic, white, Anglo-Saxon, English types, suddenly arrayed in a patrilineal/matrilineal descent give birth to this person? Because then you’re making both a set of universal claims about the male psyche and a set of highly specific social claims about race, class, and gender. It’s like, “What?” I’m both like, “OK, Alex Garland, if you’re just going to sit in front of me and lecture me, can I at least ask you some questions?” and “Dude, I think you’re one confused puppy here.”

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Stevens: Yeah. Honestly, it struck me that the racial politics of that were very strange—that the final product of this series of man births from a bunch of white dudes was a Black guy—but I almost just had to dismiss it as pure sloppiness on Alex Garland’s part. It’s almost like, “Oh, I’ve got to have this gesture toward diversifying my cast, so I’ll make her dead husband Black.” But that, as you say, brings up so many questions, that the movie is absolutely uninterested in engaging in. And if that’s going to be his effort at representation in his cast, it’s a pretty sad state of affairs.

But I still want to know. Let’s imagine a universe where, just between these two characters, that scene had continued. And we had seen the next thing that happened on the couch after the husband says, “I want your love.” What did she do? Did he disappear? Is he still sitting there? Is he dead? Is he alive? Did she go make a cup of tea? Something had to happen between that moment and the sunny morning when her friend arrives in her car. Are they going to go back in and find a mangled corpse in the living room?

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Turner: The movie makes very clear that this is not all in her head, right? The friend drives up. Jessie Buckley still has the blood on her cheek. The car is still smashed into the little stone wall where one of the Rorys was chasing her after he was birthed. So we are to believe that real physical violence has been wrought upon this world. One question without those things would’ve been, “Was this all in her head?” But no, so she was really haunted. And then, right, what happened? I don’t think she did kill him with the ax, because there’s no more blood on the dress or her cheek. If she did, it was an extremely tidy axing. In realizing that he only needed her love, did he just puff away?

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Stevens: But then, did she give him her love? If we’re going to do some feminist polemics, that we’ve been leading up toward all this time, I was looking forward to him saying, “I just want your love,” and her saying, “Well, let me tell you something, buddy,” and going off on him for being such a manipulative dick. But instead of that, we just tastefully cut to the word men and are supposed to draw conclusions from that. I think that was my least favorite moment of the whole movie, was that cut to that word.

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Turner: I know. She didn’t get a speech, she didn’t even get to say, “What?” Because she doesn’t say “what” anymore. She finally understands. I feel like that’s supposed to be the arc of the film. She’s no longer incredulous and surprised. She realizes that men are weak and desperate and lain low by the fact of their desperate need for the love of women. And that is excusing centuries of patriarchy and bullshit. And she’s supposed to find it comforting? And again, where did he go? You’re so right, Dana. I’m now focused on that exact question: What happened to this lurching broken body who was apparently really there? Because her cheek is really bloodstained and the windows are really broken.

Stevens: Yeah, this is one of those movies that’s ambiguous at its own expense. This ambiguous ending could mean so many things, it kind of means nothing at all.

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