Runtime: 101 minutes
Directors: Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer
Writer: Shane Crowley (Story by Shane Crowley and Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly)
Stars: Emily Watson, Paul Mescal, Aisling Francoisi, Declan Conlon, Toni O’Rourke
By Calum Cooper
“God’s Creatures” (2023) is the latest A24 title, which means one can expect quality from the get go. While it does deliver on this, it is perhaps more impressive as a thought provoking gothic tale – one that could perhaps be read as a contemporary fable. The lengths one will go to for their child is on this film’s mind, yet its exploration of this is more about the moralities one can potentially sacrifice in the pursuit of this otherwise noble idea.
Set in a small Irish fishing village, Aileen (Emily Watson) works at the local seafood processing plant, along with many in the town. Most notably among them is the young Sarah (Aisling Franciosi), who has recently separated from her abusive husband. During the funeral for a friend’s son, who drowned at sea, Aileen’s son Brian (Paul Mescal) arrives back in town. He spent years in Australia without contacting his family, yet, without any money or seemingly any prospects, is back in town to manage the old family oyster trapping farm. But when Brian is accused of a serious crime, Aileen starts to wonder just how much she knows her son.
From the first few frames of “God’s Creatures”, personified by the cold colour palette, the ominous score and the harsh waves of the sea, directors Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer set the tone magnificently. Although the inciting incident – a mother being reunited with her son – looks and sounds like a cause for celebration, this is a harrowing story about one’s potential for evil and its traumatic effects. Sarah laments “we are all God’s creatures in the darkness”, and there’s a horrifying truth to that. Even those who we think we know the best, that being our children, parents or closest friends, are capable of extreme harm, especially if we turn a blind eye to it.
Visually, “God’s Creatures” is a stellar example of gorgeous grimness. Its muted colour scheme lends credence to the gothic tone it wishes to display, assisted by the production design, which captures the claustrophobic feel of a small community almost too well. The juxtaposition between wide shots of mostly empty spaces and the intense close ups that convey feeling while generating a borderline sense of discomforting voyeurism is especially invigorating. Even though it seems as mundane as any other remote village, there is something suffocating to the closeness of everything – as if nowhere is really safe. Not even your immediate family can provide some comforting escapism. It’s truly some stellar work by cinematographer Chayse Irvin.
“God’s Creatures” captures the moral dilemma of its premise in a manner that’s virtually hypnotic. It’s hard not to be simultaneously angry and sympathetic at Aileen’s actions.”
There’s a compelling sense of anti-patriarchy to the narrative. The accusations against Brian are deeply troubling, yet he seems indifferent to them. The men of the community even rally around him to ostracise his accuser. Instead it is the women – namely Aileen and Sarah – who bear the brunt of the fallout, despite it being a man who is so clearly at fault. With Aileen, it is especially challenging. As a mother she loves her son unconditionally, but if the allegations against him prove to be true, as they gradually seem to be, then at what point does her covering for him erode her own moral conscience? At what point does Brian being her son cease to be a good enough reason to stand by him?
“God’s Creatures” captures the moral dilemma of its premise in a manner that’s virtually hypnotic. It’s hard not to be simultaneously angry and sympathetic at Aileen’s actions, as the sharp script by Shane Crowley delivers a deft balance between maternal love and admiration and the reality of such toxic behaviour. Bringing the pages to life with such immense power are the impeccable range of performances. Watson and Mescal have phenomenal chemistry together that is equal parts loving and antagonistic given the scenario. Mescal embraces the veiled scumminess of his role to deliver a performance that can be terrifying in instances. Watson finds the grey areas of her character’s unique situation and conveys them on screen with a heightened vulnerability that gleans empathy out of every frame. Yet Aisling Franciosi should not be overlooked. Her ability to capture righteous fury is second to none, and that skill is on full display here. That she wasn’t Oscar nominated for her similarly angry turn in Jennifer Kent’s “The Nightingale” (2019) is still one of the biggest crimes of recent awards seasons.
The slow burn pacing may be off putting to some audiences, as will the undoubtedly heavy content featured. But those who can manage both these aspects will find something quietly disarming but undeniably entrancing about “God’s Creatures”. With excellent performances, remarkable direction, and a knack for addressing the nuances of its setup, it’s a gothic drama that’ll leave you taken in by its icy grip. As emotionally impactful as it is engagingly uneasy, coastal Ireland has never looked so enrapturing.