Alex Garland’s Men — his horror-movie follow-up to Annihilation and Ex Machina — ends without any cut-and-dried resolution. It’s unclear from the movie’s final moments exactly how the conflict resolved, or how real any of the action was. The movie is packed with Biblical and pagan symbolism, but scholars have long debated the historical meaning of the two primary icons Garland uses here, and Garland himself doesn’t offer any answers. Men is a heavily metaphorical movie that uses striking, provocative images for emotional impact, but it doesn’t lend itself to simple or definitive readings.
And Garland suggests that it wouldn’t matter if it did. Even if he were much more blatant about spelling out an agenda in the movie, he thinks viewers would still interpret it based on their own experiences and biases.
“Many, many times, I’ve encountered people who say, ‘This film is clearly this,’” Garland tells Polygon. “And what they really mean is, ‘It’s clearly this to me.’ And that ends up being about them as much as it is about the film. It is about their response to it. It’s about their life history, it’s about their concerns about the world and their interaction with it.”
Garland points to the beginning of his career, and his novel The Beach, which director Danny Boyle eventually made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tilda Swinton. DiCaprio plays a novelty-hungry traveler who follows a rumor to an isolated island, where a group of international travelers are trying to keep a beautiful beach to themselves, fearing that tourism and popularity will ruin their paradise.
Garland says he intended the story to be critical of the backpacker scene. “And I very quickly became aware that some people were reading it as celebratory of the backpacker scene,” he says. “I’ve encountered that again and again and again. I’ve had people telling me, ‘Ex Machina is about this, and you’re saying that.’ And I’m thinking ‘No, that’s you saying that. That is your imaginative response to Ex Machina, and that’s fine.’”
As far as Men goes, Garland says he’s avoided revealing anything about his own intentions or interpretations. At a Q&A after the New York City premiere of Men, he told the audience, “It’s not just shit happening. I’ve got a rationale, but it doesn’t seem to be terribly important.”
That feeling that his read on the ending wasn’t important was what led him to cut a short final scene that might have cleared up at least some of the ambiguity. The scene was shot, he says, but he decided during the edit process that the film worked better for him without any explanations.
[Ed. note: Full spoilers ahead for the ending of Men.]
In the film, a woman named Harper (Jessie Buckley) retreats to a country estate in England after her husband’s death. Harper intended to divorce James (Paapa Essiedu), and when she tells him, he hits her and yells at her. The resulting argument ends with him falling off a balcony to his death, though it’s unclear both to Harper and to the audience whether he deliberately jumped or accidentally fell while trying to break in on Harper after she locks him out.
On the rental estate, Harper meets a series of men (and one creepy teenager) who all have the face of Rory Kinnear. All of them want something out of her, and they meet her refusals with different levels of rage, contempt, or condescension. Eventually, several of the men confront her in a sequence that starts out as a home-invasion horror movie and turns into something more like cosmic body horror. When she wounds one of the men, every subsequent one shows the same terrible wound, which mimics the fatal damage James suffered in his fall. And when one of them corners her, it promptly gives birth to another man-monster, which gives birth to another, in a chain of bloody, dripping bodily expulsions.
Finally, the last man-monster gives birth to James, still broken and mutilated from the event that killed him, but seemingly alive. Harper, wielding an axe and clearly long past being afraid of these creatures, asks James what he wants from her, and he says he still wants her love. Her response, like so much of the movie, is ambiguous. Then Garland cuts to a later moment where Harper meets with an old friend, Riley, and the two women exchange a wordless smile as the film ends.
Did Harper kill the new James deliberately this time? Did she leave him to his own devices and just walk away? Did they come to some kind of accord? Did she just decide she wouldn’t let her life be defined by guilt over him, making what happens to him in the end irrelevant to her story? Was any of it real, or was it all a hallucination prompted by Harper’s grief and confusion? (The crashed car and the blood on Harper’s clothing suggests something real happened, but doesn’t spell out what.)
While Garland’s original final scene was short — he describes it as “four or five lines of dialogue between Harper and Riley” — it still might have made Harper’s state of mind and her interpretation of events a little clearer.
“In terms of what we shot, Jessie’s character looks up and smiles, and Riley walks over and they have a little dialogue exchange,” Garland tells Polygon. “I cut that dialogue exchange and came out of the film on the smile between them. Riley looks quizzical, and Harper smiles in reply, and is in a way pleased to see her.”
In that New York Q&A, Garland was a little more specific. “I’m always looking to cut dialogue,” he said. “I personally found it more touching when they just smiled at each other, because it’s been so dreadful, what preceded that moment. And all they have to do is smile at each other, and that felt stronger and simpler. The dialogue felt redundant next to the smile.”
He also told the audience that their questions about what happens at the end are much of the point of the movie. “I’m trying to lean into something which has to do with the way the audiences interpret, imaginatively engage, with images in the story,” he said. “I particularly wanted to step back, because there’s an element of it where the nature of the way it is interpreted by different people is actually what the film is. So I don’t want to intervene.”
He tells Polygon that since he wants people to come away with their own interpretations, he isn’t concerned with them misreading his. “I think it’s very likely that what you’ll get is some people whose opinions chime very closely with mine, and some people who chime very closely with other people who worked on the film, and some that are in a completely oppositional state,” he says.
And in the end, he rejects the idea that the creator of a piece of art is any kind of authority on what it means in the first place. “I see that written again and again — this thing is this, as if the writer is capable of having a definitive answer about the nature of something,” he says. “And I just dispute it. I dispute it in my interactions with people on anything, whether it’s a bacon sandwich or a book we both enjoyed or didn’t enjoy.”