This year A24 has built upon their well-established hip image with the zany and self-indulgent multiverse bop “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and a string of attention-getting horror films that includes “X”, “Men”, “Bodies Bodies Bodies”, and “Pearl”. But easily one of the best movies from A24’s 2022 catalog is “God’s Creatures”, a searing psychological drama from co-directors Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer.
“God’s Creatures” is a tough-minded social study wrapped in a warped Prodigal Son story. Along the way it takes a scalpel to familial bonds, family loyalties, and small town justice, all while looking hard at sexual assault amid the slanted social dynamics of a tight-knit Irish fishing village. That’s meaty subject matter on its own, but it’s Davis, Holmer, and first-time feature screenwriter Shane Crowley’s honest and unvarnished perspective that makes it resonate.
The film features a terrific cast, none better than Emily Watson, an actress who can convey more through a simply stare than most actresses can with pages of dialogue. Her awards worthy performance offers a fascinating spin on the mother archetype, one minute embodying it to the fullest and later offering a full-blown deconstruction as her character is faced with choices and their potentially damning consequences.
Firmly rooted in the everyday monotony of her rural coastal village, middle-aged matriarch Aileen O’Hara (Watson) spends her days sorting fish and oysters with other women at the town’s seaside distribution plant. At home, her family is jolted by the unannounced return of her favorite son, Brian (Paul Mescal) who has spent the last several years in Australia. There’s never a reason given for his sudden reappearance, but there’s plenty to glean from the film’s second half for us to reach our own conclusions.
While the ecstatic Aileen instantly reverts to the doting mother, the other members of the family seem leery of Brian’s return. His cold taciturn father, Con (a stern and earnest Declan Conlon) speaks volumes with his silence. But his clear-eyed straight-shooting sister, Erin (a wonderful Toni O’Rourke) doesn’t hide her suspicions. The family tension is palpable, and Crowley’s screenplay manages it without the need for melodramatic flashbacks or heavy exposition. He simply trusts us to follow the breadcrumbs and figure things out for ourselves.
Aileen’s maternal joy in having her son back comes with its own set of form-fitting blinders. Not only does she tune out the growing concerns of her family, she also blindly brushes off some clear red flags (anything for her little boy). But the tide shifts after Brian is accused of sexually assaulting Aileen’s younger co-worker and longtime family friend, Sarah (Aisling Franciosi, full of quiet fortitude). When asked by the police about her son’s whereabouts on the night in question, Aileen lies to corroborate Brian’s story. The repercussions of that choice reverberates through the remainder of the film’s running time.
While its story unfolds into a gripping character-driven slow burn, “God’s Creatures” is full of modest yet extremely effective touches. Cinematographer Chayse Irvin’s beautiful yet somber gaze shrewdly feeds the film’s tragic mood and atmosphere. The sound design leans heavy on local ambience (the caws of seagulls, the clacking of oyster shells, the many different sounds of water) which provides a strong sense of place. Then there’s the disconcerting score from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans – a brilliantly strange blend of wailing strings and higher pitched thumps.
But “God’s Creatures” always comes back to the characters and the exceptional ensemble behind them. Emily Watson should immediately be put into the Oscar conversation for her raw and unflinching performance. Mescal’s uncanny ability to mix sinister with charm plays with our perception of his character by making Brian both endearing and unnerving. And then there’s Franciosi who gets several great scenes, none better than a single sustained profile shot that comes at the film’s most crucial moment. It’s a scene that encapsulates what makes the movie so good – it’s concise, affecting, and it has faith in its audience to figure things out. “God’s Creatures” is out now in select theaters.