Download:: NYFF Review: Foe
Garth Davis’ Foe, a sci-fi chamber drama based on the eponymous novel by Iain Reid, with whom Davis co-wrote the script, starts off well enough. Set in the midst of or toward the end of our current prolonged apocalypse, Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal star as married farmers on seemingly barren land in the year 2065, past the time where much of the Earth is habitable we’re told in an opening title card. They’re alarmingly secluded on their unidentified patch of land, its distinguishing feature the populous of dead trees surrounding their home.
Being the only two people they see day in, day out, their marriage is tense, both Hen (Ronan) and Junior (Mescal) exhibiting control issues that, were they not still capable of showing affection to each other, might have torn them apart long ago. Their story initially appears to be one about the status of human relationships our species might experience should climate change force us into living situations we today would deem unreasonable. That starts to change with the arrival of a lone stranger, Terrance (Aaron Pierce), who says he works for the government and is recruiting candidates to help build a massive space station that a significant portion of the human population will soon call home. The catch is that only Junior will go, leaving Hen with a supposedly rudimentary clone of her husband for the duration of his duty.
As Foe’s climate parable morphs into a psychological thriller, we watch Terrance run a series of strangely personal tests on Junior for his future space duties. As a result, the marriage begins to unravel in ways Junior can’t control. At this point, the script is eerie and tense, but overwrought. Every once in a while, the film proves that even such talents as Ronan and Mescal can’t sell just any line of dialogue. But sometimes, it works, especially when Terrance starts living with the couple and the film flirts with homoeroticism to match the script’s light case of camp. The lead performances are similarly confused, but ultimately successful, even if just barely. Ronan’s starts as a bore before carefully revealing more layers as the film goes. Mescal, meanwhile, remains mostly collected during a descent into madness that would push many performers into consistent overacting (though, he does slip here and there).
But then, before the third act, Foe unveils a twist its script and tone basically tell you is coming right from the title cards. One so obvious you think, “Wait, that can’t be the actual twist.” It is, though. David plays through said twist by doubling down on the story’s pulpier bits, rendering the payoffs to some of the film’s more interesting ideas hackneyed. And then it just keeps going. Foe doesn’t know when to end once it folds in on itself, forcing its own implosion by introducing last-minute themes and ideas that feel like they’re from a different story entirely (and, unfortunately for the film’s decidedly self-serious tone, a much sillier one).
Still, the film is never boring, just not for the right reasons. Once Foe goes hammy, it becomes propulsive in a way that’s hard to look away from. The story refuses to end and we’re just here to watch it crash and burn. It always looks good, though. Mátyás Erdély’s cinematography is often inspired, ensuring Hen and Junior’s desolate farm always has the look of death as the film purports to examine our apocalyptic psychosis. But ultimately, this is an unhappy movie that so deeply squanders what it’s trying to say about our unhappy times. The villains of Foe are, sadly, behind the camera.