Shared madness — or, at least, shared delusion — punctuated filmmaker Anna Rose Holmer’s striking debut “The Fits,” which followed a group of young dancers in Cincinnati who all fell prey to the same mysterious ailment and saw their bonds shift and change because of it. Holmer created her remarkable first film with editor and writer Saela Davis and they reteam on her second, “God’s Creatures,” with Davis taking a co-directing credit on another ambitious look inside a community defined by fractured, perhaps even crazy bonds.
Unlike “The Fits,” however, “God’s Creatures” is a decidedly chilly affair, both due to its location (a windswept Irish fishing village where people wear cozy sweaters even in May) and its subject matter (a prodigal son returns home and upends everyone’s lives). But powerful performances from stars Emily Watson and Paul Mescal add spark to the film, which is both totally immersive and oddly underbaked. And while that may be the point — what outsider could ever fully understand the rules and ways of this community? — the film’s overly simplistic conclusion indicates that’s not entirely what Holmer and Davis were going for.
There’s something particularly grotesque about where “God’s Creatures” opens (a compliment, really), finding most of our main characters mourning the loss of one of their sons, a fisherman who refused to learn how to swim so he’d never be on the hook to help another drowning person. But no one has proper time to mourn the dead guy, as another of the village’s sons has returned — not quite from the dead, but close enough, as he’s been off in Australia for nearly a decade — and rolls up to a literal wake to announce that he’s back.
Brian (Mescal) has been gone so long that he doesn’t even realize his grandfather Paddy (Lalor Roddy) doesn’t speak anymore, and his shock at meeting his baby nephew doesn’t seem like a winky affectation. Striding into the local pub, Brian is so puffed up that it somehow escapes his notice that everyone is wearing black and looking pretty beat down, besides his own mother Aileen (a remarkable Watson), who lights up the moment she even thinks she hears her long-lost son’s voice. Funeral? What’s that? We’ve got a resurrection on our hands!
Aileen and Brian’s bond is so close, so physical, that some audiences might briefly wonder if they’re in for a different kind of mother-son story (they’re not), but it’s also essential to selling what happens next. Even as Brian settles back into life in the village after turning tail years ago (and presumably leaving his family in the lurch), there’s clearly something amiss. (Of note: composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans offer a characteristically piercing and occasionally uncomfortable score that sets a creepy tone from the start.) But before Holmer and Davis get to that — and, no spoilers here, even though the film’s shortest longline gives away much of what’s to come — they steep us in the world he left behind.
And what a world it is. The setting and concept of the film were inspired by producer Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly, who grew up in an Irish fishing village and enlisted fellow Irish writer Shane Crowley to write the film’s script from her own idea, and you can practically smell the salt air and the butchered fish from the packing plant where Aileen (and nearly every other woman in town) works. The pace of the days is steady: Get up, go to work, strip off your mucky fishing clothes, stop off at the pub, do it all over again.
Brian’s big idea is enthusiastically fostered by Aileen: He’ll revitalize the family’s long-fallow oyster beds. The details of what happened to the oyster beds when Brian left, however, are unclear. (Mostly due to thick Irish accents, not any perceived lack in the film’s screenplay.) After all, Aileen kept up the family’s oystering license, even after Brian left, and bringing back the live crop will involve at least a year of hard work. But is Brian really capable of such commitment?
Not everyone is thrilled about Brian’s return, including Brian’s own father Con (a taciturn Declan Connolly) and his sister Erin (a riveting Toni O’Rourke). While Aileen’s incandescent happiness at having her clearly favorite child on the scene shines bright for most of the film’s first act, Con and Erin’s brusqueness makes it clear that Brian is hardly the dreamboat Aileen imagines him to be. Crowley’s script doesn’t root around in Brian’s psyche, leaving most of the heavy lifting to Watson — though the juxtaposition of two moments in which he interacts with his ailing, immobile grandfather, once when no one else is watching, once when Aileen does, is telling.
The force of Watson’s performance helps guide “God’s Creatures” through some of its choppiest waters; a lesser performer would not be able to sell the swift changes that Aileen must endure as she becomes brutally aware of who Brian actually is. Mescal, though still a rising star, is able to trade on any familiarity the audience might have (mostly, as the downbeat but deeply lovable star of “Normal People”), and his work here is quietly chilling. But, still, this is Watson’s show, and she tears into it with all the pain, feeling, and fear of the world’s most dedicated mother.
As insular as that might sound, there are plenty of moving parts in “God’s Creatures,” with a number of them not receiving the full attention Watson so ably commands. The crux of the film might be an alleged crime committed by Brian (the film doesn’t mess around with any questions about if he did or did not do it, a thrilling choice), but there’s also a litany of other complex relationships to untangle, an oyster ailment that threatens the village’s livelihood, and at least one very quiet death.
Eventually, the film twists away from Aileen to follow longtime family friend Sarah (“The Nightingale” breakout Aisling Franciosi), who is gifted with both a stunning monologue and the absolutely unwinnable prospect of stealing attention and screen time from Watson. This is Aileen’s story and when “God’s Creatures” makes the odd choice to turn away from her just as things are reaching a fever pitch, it dilutes the power of both her performance and the film itself. She’s gone mad, but “God’s Creatures” isn’t willing to follow her there, perhaps the craziest choice of all.
“God’s Creatures” premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. A24 will release it in the U.S.
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