Garth Davis broke onto the scene with his debut feature “Lion” in 2016, and what a debut it was. The biopic earned six Oscar nominations – including Best Picture – while Davis was nominated by the Directors Guild of America. His 2018 sophomore effort “Mary Magdalene” had the star power of Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix but failed to make an impression.
“Foe” arrives five years later with Davis retreating to his native Australia to take on his most ambitious film yet, armed with another pair of Oscar-nominated actors and sci-fi source material from novelist Ian Reid. Unfortunately, his reach far exceeds his grasp, and the film is sent off the rails by overwrought performances and a screenplay devoid of any subtlety or ambiguity.
A dying planet decades in the future. A struggling farmer called to the stars. At first glance, “Foe” could be mistaken for an “Interstellar” riff, although that would probably be giving the film too much credit. Paul Mescal plays strongly against type as Junior, a shotgun-toting, beer-drinking Midwest American who passes his days by working at a futuristic chicken plant. His wife Henrietta (or Hen, as Junior calls her) is rendered fine enough by Saoirse Ronan. Gratefully, the chemistry between the two is solid and makes the film engaging in spurts as they navigate the emotional highs and lows of the prospect that lies before them – Junior being conscripted into a two-year trial of working in space, and Hen being provided with a “human substitute,” ie. an artificial intelligence with a physical body that replicates Junior’s. This news is delivered by Terrance (Aaron Pierre), a corporate suit who begins to take a deeper interest in the relationship between Junior and Hen.
The film sports a fly-on-the-wall, observational style, which suits the isolated couple coming under examination. Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély (“Son of Saul”) does a fine job taking over for Oscar-winner Greig Fraser, who lensed Davis’ first two films. Whether the camera is stationed in the corner of the couple’s bedroom, flying over the countryside or pushing in for a close-up, Davis doesn’t let the visual scale of the story get the better of him. The film maintains its intimacy well between all three principal characters, and the VFX are used sparingly, never pushing the budgetary limitations too far or distracting from the actors. If the film has a myriad of issues, the look of it certainly isn’t one of them.
The novel by Ian Reid (who also authored “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”) has been described as a “psychological thriller” and even “horror fiction,” but Davis’ narrative approach is direct, preoccupied with the quiet existence that Junior and Hen have carved out for themselves in their bleak world. The film’s brightest spots come when it embraces the inherent absurdity of its premise – with one particular outburst involving Hen, Terrance and a dinner table being a standout – but these moments only shine through because the rest of the picture’s attempts at a deeper meaning or more potent commentary are so dire.
The first half of the film does a decent job building up the world and providing a foundation for who Junior and Hen are, both individually and as a couple. Junior is content to drink away his days in his family’s 200-year-old farmhouse, while Hen sneaks piano-playing sessions in the basement (a symbol of her individuality) and laments having never been on an airplane (a tired metaphor for escaping her marriage). The arrival of Terrance brings not only news but questions: How will Hen respond to Junior’s substitute? Will Junior be able to readjust to life back on Earth after going to space? What will their relationship look like after going through such an intense trial? Terrance himself literally interrogates Junior at one point about the nature of their marriage.
This sequence is defining for all the wrong reasons, however, as Mescal uncharacteristically goes overboard, with Davis’ direction doing little-to-nothing to restrain him. On top of this, the film has its characters simply wear their thoughts/feelings on their sleeves, rather than devising clever methods of interrogation. Instead of leaning into the story’s more surreal elements and leaving the outcome open to interpretation or giving the viewer the pieces to put together on their own, Davis indulges in spelling out every character development, plot point and thematic underpinning – culminating with a twisty, third-act nosedive that has to be seen to be believed.
Credit is due to the filmmaker for staying close to his Aussie roots while taking on a story more complex than anything he had attempted previously; if only he had allowed for some of that complexity to make it onto the screen.
“Foe” releases in theaters October 6, 2023.
Johnny Sobczak is an entertainment journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Media and Journalism and minored in Global Cinema. Johnny is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has been with Inside the Film Room since August 2019. He was named Senior Writer in January 2020 and co-hosts the Inside the Film Room podcast with Zach Goins. Johnny spends his days job-hunting, watching films and obsessing over every new detail of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune."