You Make Me Feel Mighty Real
By Matthew Eng

NYFF 2023:
Dir. Garth Davis, U.S./Australia/UK, MGM

[The following review contains major plot spoilers.]

Looking at Paul Mescal and Saoirse Ronan should never feel like a chore. In Foe, the Australian writer-director Garth Davis miscasts two of Ireland’s brightest exports as a Midwestern husband and wife struggling to hold down their battered, inherited homestead in the year 2065. High school sweethearts Junior (Mescal) and Hen (Ronan), short for Henrietta, are trapped in the type of woebegone marriage that seems to be the lot of countless couples in contemporary sci-fi dramas (Ad Astra, Arrival, The Fountain, Her, Inception, The One I Love). They are more roommates than lovers—that is, until Junior is conscripted into service by Outermore, a government program recruiting able young workers to live and labor in space to make it more habitable in light of earth’s imminent demise. The catch? While Junior is away for a two-year tour, he will be replaced by an identical “human substitute” that artificial intelligence has programmed to walk and talk just like the real thing, all for Hen’s apparent comfort. Yet the promise of this separation rekindles the tenderness and sexual appetite that lay dormant amid the couple’s earlier drift.

In the 1980s, if one was seeking to cast a pair of actors as a broken-down farm couple in the American heartland, Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard would do the trick, as might Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek or, at the very least, Kevin Costner and Amy Madigan. Although Foe’s stars are unconvincing as a diner waitress and a poultry plant worker, Ronan has at least been playing American for so long that I have come to accept and even enjoy her tinny, atemporal accent as a dialect unto itself. But Mescal struggles to inflect and particularize Junior’s voice and being. The actor delivers a pallid performance of doleful gazes and heavy-breathing hysterics. No matter their characters’ backstory, Mescal and Ronan prove far too young to make us believe and invest in a marriage that has lost its luster. (Mescal’s athlete’s build helped make him a plausible daddy in last year’s Aftersun, despite the fact that he is younger than Timothée Chalamet.) Older actors could have made these characters and their bond more emotionally resonant and credibly worn, marked by a sense of shared history and precious, always dwindling time.

Adapted by Davis and the Canadian author Iain Reid from the latter’s 2018 novel of the same name, Foe fails at bringing its more intriguing propositions to compelling life. Hen, who seeks an identity and experiences outside her isolated home, comes to occupy the center of the film. There is promise to the self-knowing scorn with which Ronan fetches drinks for the strong, decision-making men in her living room. She is insulted yet begrudgingly accepting of the prospect of living with her husband’s “dynamic copy,” whose sole duty will be, in the words of Outermore representative Terrance (Aaron Pierre), “to look after wee Henrietta” in Junior’s absence. Throughout, Hen chafes against stereotypical wifeliness even as she conforms to it; Ronan tries her damndest to animate the character’s tricky mix of lust, misery, and spunk with her trademark gusto and radiance. But Hen’s arc ultimately amounts to little more than faint, dialogic gestures towards a hazy elsewhere supposedly beyond reach, emphasized by the belabored metaphor of a neglected piano collecting dust in the basement.

A similar fruitlessness marks the ambiguous dynamic between Foe’s central pair and Terrance, who moves into the couple’s home mid-film to help Junior prepare for his impending voyage. Pierre, so arresting a presence as the doomed Caesar in Barry Jenkins’s The Underground Railroad (2021), delivers the film’s most consistent performance, raising the temperature of certain scenes with his slick and sexy treachery, a snake circling the conjugal bed. A triangulated tension emerges during Terrance’s encounters with Hen and Junior, but it is never allowed to tip into outright desire, not even when Pierre is stoned and crooning to Ronan or probing Mescal’s bare torso.

Too content to play on the surface of their story, Davis and Reid refrain from dwelling in the ambivalence with which these characters continually circle one another. Lion (2016), Davis’s feature debut after co-directing Top of the Lake’s 2013 first season, was prone to creaky narrative turns, exoticist ogling, and leaden montages composed almost solely of Google Earth screenshots. But the heartsore performances of Davis’s lead actors made this decades-spanning, transcontinental true story into an affectingly mournful melodrama, visually enhanced at all turns by the ace cinematographer Greig Fraser. For Foe, Davis enlisted the Hungarian DP Mátyás Erdély, a talented collaborator of László Nemes and Sean Durkin who disappoints by shooting quaint interiors and parched, increasingly inhospitable flatlands with, respectively, ashen drabness and a dull, squint-inducing shine. (Victoria, Australia, doubles for Middle America here.) For every handsomely framed or warmly lit shot, there are a dozen dreary ones befitting a film that many will consume via Amazon Prime. When the barren landscapes and twee rooms grow too repetitive, editor Peter Sciberras reverts to close-ups that capture the beauty of these actors but reveal less about their characters than likely intended.

Though obfuscation may be the point. A great deal of Foe’s second act involves espionage, doublespeak, covert consultations, and shadowy men-in-black, all deliberately oblique and leading to the climactic revelation that is the film’s raison d’être: the Junior we have watched since the start of Foe is actually a replicant; the real Junior has already departed by the time Terrance arrives at the couple’s doorstep with an invitation to space, an attempt to make the android Junior believe his reality. Hen has subsequently developed sincere affection for her substitute spouse over the course of their year together. This is a crafty and genuinely surprising twist that casts preceding narrative events in a new light. For instance, Hen is not trapped in a staid marriage when she is with the AI-powered Junior but is finding her footing with—and grappling with her horniness for—a new and alien husband. A generous reading might even ascribe Mescal’s affectless accent to his robotic assignment.

And yet the emotions that undergird this twist, that should endow it with psychological dimension or at least palpable stakes, are rendered overwrought and imprecise at the very moment when the unfairness of robo-Junior’s fate—which, in a chilling climax, is quite literally sealed—should appear most tragic. The facility with actors that Davis has previously exhibited is seldom detectable throughout this cumbersome film, whose feints at fun and friskiness are unnervingly forced. The writer-director has peppered his scenes with carefully curated needle-drops rather than substantive inquiries into who these people are and what draws them to—and repels them from—each other. One can glimpse the more curious and delicate film that might have been made from this material in a brief scene in which our stars lie naked and moony on abandoned farmland, contemplating the cosmos. This version might have lingered in their postcoital bliss and plumbed the strange, intricate sensation that has overtaken Hen as she connects with a husband who both is and isn’t hers.