Garth Davis’s new film, Foe, commits the cardinal sin of being tangential, similar to another piece of fiction ingrained in contemporary pop culture – in this case, an episode of Black Mirror. Not from a specific episode, mind you, but the general idea. It sounds like what a Black Mirror episode could be, which is probably the laziest critical take I have heard all year. Neither did Charlie Brooker create the genre of the recognisable dystopian future and social satire, nor did both works approach the topic through the same lens. Reducing Foe to that low-hanging fruit is doing it a disservice.
Based on a book by Iain Reid, the writer behind I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Foe recounts the life of a couple facing an existential crisis. It’s an undisclosed future when humanity is starting to escape the planet and move to space stations in orbit. Junior (Paul Mescal) and Hen (Saoirse Ronan) are a young couple challenging the exodus and living in isolation on a farm that has been in Junior’s family for generations. The arrival of a mysterious man (Aaron Pierre) comes with a non-negotiable proposition – Junior has to move to a space station for two years and will be replaced by a biomechanical clone to ease Hen’s loneliness.
The trick here is that we are never sure which timeline the film is giving us – before the replacement, during, or after – at least until the third act of the film, when Davis finally reveals his hand, lets go of all subtlety, and allows the audience into the emotional conflict of his characters. That is the power of a film like Foe, and why comparisons with Charlie Brooker’s anthology show are irrelevant – there is no satire here. Foe is a film about the conflicts in everyone’s personal journey. What strange, weird forces dictate how and who we love and how fickle those powers are. It is sad and emotional, and it doesn’t offer a concrete answer, but it leaves a lingering question in the back of one’s head: “What would I do if I were in that situation?”
This is where Davis shines. The Australian director is mainly known for his 2016 drama Lion, which proudly manipulated the audience’s emotions to hide its shortcomings. Davis goes into a project headfirst to make the audience feel before they have to think. The social mechanics and philosophical implications of films are irrelevant if he makes everyone in the audience cry. There is a lot of craft in achieving this, and Davis is a crafty and talented filmmaker who understands the poignant power of images.
Davis also knows how to work with actors. Mescal, Ronan, and Pierre wear their hearts on their sleeve and chew the scenery with gusto. It may not be for everyone, but this kind of overacting is exciting and indicates just how good all three actors are. There’s a moment near the end that asks all three to unearth the rawest feeling of their characters, and how they deliver. Pierre intensely threatening, Mescal broken and fragile, Ronan powerless and blubbering.
Foe is the best kind of flawed film. It feels pure, unhindered by any metaphysical aspiration. It misses the mark of its message because it’s trying to run away from the more profound implications of the story. So yes, it’s shallow but also stripped-down, kitsch, and technically wonderful. And it lets three wonderful actors go off unhinged. Black Mirror would never.
Verdict: 3½ out of 5
For everyone who likes complex drama about simple and honest emotions. It’s like a play with three actors pouring their blood and sweat without any subtlety. It’s not perfect.