Whenever writer/director Alex Garland points his pen, or lens, at a subject, the only certainty is that by the end of the journey, he’s going to expose the audience to things they’ve never seen before. Usually, he likes to use science fiction (Annihilation) and technology (Devs) to dig into our human frailties and flaws. But in his latest, Men, Garland’s taking a sojourn into folk-horror territory to look at grief, guilt and toxic masculinity.
A contemporary tale set in England, Men sees Jessie Buckley play Harper, a self-sufficient career woman who has been recently widowed. The circumstances of her husband James’ (Paapa Essiedu) death factors deeply into the story and prompts her to travel from London to the Cotswolds for an isolated two-week retreat in a rented manor. Attempting to work through her complicated feelings in some solitude, she’s instead constantly made to interact with the men of the small village, all of whom are played by Rory Kinnear.
A series of fascinating interactions document with startling accuracy the everyday microaggressions women navigate from the opposite sex, which start as just nosey and slightly invasive and escalate to terrifying and violent. And then in the third act, Garland’s promise to floor your eyeballs is realized in one of the most surreal sequences he’s ever captured on film. Audiences will have a field day parsing the symbolism and subtext out of one of the strangest body horror moments in recent memory. And that got us at Paste wondering what Buckley and Kinnear thought about Garland’s script and then seeing it all come together on-screen. We got on a Zoom with them to get their thoughts on Men.
Paste Magazine: Jessie, did the script initially speak to you because of how it potently portrays the implied threats women have to navigate day-to-day?
Jessie Buckley: It was more about our relation to each other as men and women. It wasn’t something that I was divided about. It provoked questions in me about what is going on? Why is there a breaking apart between each other, in some way? And how can we actually move forward together? Sometimes you have to go and face the monster within ourselves, and each other, to understand. It was more of that than a kind of straight feminism.
Rory, you wrote bios for each of the men you play. How did that help you shape your performances?
Rory Kinnear: I knew that I was lucky to be attached to something so early on in the process. And I knew that with costume and hair and makeup that they would be keen to begin their process as well. I guess I just wanted to make sure that we were all going down a similar kind of path.
And their biographies were not like, “I think they look like this,” or “That they wear this.” They gave an impression of who these people were: Their lives, where they’d come from, the kind of schooling they’d had, what their parents had done, what music they were into and that kind of thing. Quite a few of the descriptions of the characters were pretty minimal. A few of them don’t speak at all, so I wanted to make sure that even those characters were fully rounded. Because otherwise, you get a sense if an actor hasn’t invested in one particular character because it slightly jumps out, the hollowness. I needed to make sure that I had done a similar level of work with each one of them. And then, yeah, it was more a question of trial and error, and playing around with costumes and hair and makeup. Then the first day that you [played] a character, things could change that morning if you’d have an idea. It was really good fun, obviously. But I also made sure that I was taking each one as seriously as the other.
Was Garland surprised by any of your interpretations?
Kinnear: No. It was more like, it became quite instructive how people respond to the surface every time I’d go on set, depending on who I was playing. I wasn’t staying in character in between takes. I was still Rory. But people responded to me in completely different ways depending on what my external appearance was. That was quite instructive. And also the odd things of how different a pair of contact lenses can make your whole personality seem. So yeah, that was quite fun to play with as well.
Garland said a lot of what’s in the film came out of the rehearsal process. I can imagine that a lot of the conversations were based on experiential things that helped add extra layers to the men Harper meets, or how they speak to each other.
Kinnear: We had this two-week rehearsal period in which we were all pretty open and prepared to see, or divulge, a lot of our own experiences around these themes. I’m pretty sure it all fed into who the characters were and how the scripts developed over that period of time. And on the day as well, things changed quite often, quite a lot, when you get to set. I wouldn’t necessarily divulge what those experiences were, but I felt like it created the beginnings of a really rewarding and rich collaborative process. So that, when you got to set on day one—which can often be like the first day of school feeling—you’d already done the hard work of making those professional relationships quite solid.
Jessie, the first act really captures the sense of dread women experience when they’re alone and an unknown threat from a stranger permeates your decision-making. Did you add anything personal to those scenes?
Buckley: I think it was actually the reverse. Like anytime I would go home for the weekend, anytime my partner came into the room, I’d scream. And he’d be like, “I live here!” I was having post traumatic stress going back home. [Laughs.]
But, I don’t know. It’s not a documentary. We’re creating an image of horror, and you can’t compete with the horror that is in the world, in some ways. But you try to represent it and not represent the horrible, but represent the reality in whatever way it is for you. So there wasn’t anything specific. Unfortunately, it is what it is. But for me, doing this at least sparked a conversation about why it is what it is. And actually, maybe we need to lean into each other and understand all the parts that are probably hardest to understand in order to move forward instead of it being divisive. And you know, bear-baiting each other.
In the tunnel sequence, your vocal notes that echo in the abyss end up becoming a motif in the score of the film by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. How did that come about?
Buckley: That was Alex’s idea. And that was something that happened on the day where he just kind of had this idea that the notes would become a motif of some sort. When the trailer came out, I got a load of voice notes from all my sisters and brothers going, “Huh…huh, huh, huh,” which I really enjoyed. And then it turned into, kind of grunts. [Laughs.]
Rory, the birthing sequence has to be one of those script moments where you go, “Uhm?” Was that a sequence you really understood or was it clear you weren’t going to understand it until you actually saw it as a finished piece?
Kinnear: And maybe not even then. [Laughs.] You knew that 50% of what you were doing was in the hands of others. Most of the fun of the collaboration on a film set is doing it on the day. I’m really pleased with how it turned out. We knew we were doing something pretty distinctive. Certainly when it first started, and I was kind of lowing in the grass as this Green Man figure. And knowing that that was the beginning and that we had a long way to go with this sequence. There was a bit where Jessie and I looked each other in the eye and knew that if we ever found this funny, we were going to be lost for the next seven or eight days. It was going to be very hard to get it back. We just basically had to commit.
Jessie, in the last sequence between James and Harper on the couch, was that scene always as concise as it played out? Or did Alex cut back on their last exchange?
Buckley: I don’t think it was. And I think that last scene with him is so beautiful. You’ve gone through this mad, harrowing, very surreal experience of men birthing themselves from men, or from Rory’s different holes. [Laughs.] And then it’s like quite a domestic scene. Everything that you’ve just seen kind of melts away and you’re back with the catalyst of why this all happens in the first place. Actually, I think the thing that [Alex] changed was just me saying, “Yeah.” After she asks, “What is it that you want from me?” and James says, “Love.”
I think Alex, on the day, just said to say, “Yeah.” And that was it. To be honest, the script hardly changed at all, maybe a little bit.
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official Story of Marvel Studios released in late 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.