[Co-published with Geek Vibes Nation as part of its coverage of the 61st New York Film Festival.]
How valuable is a film twist, anyway?
One might ask that question after watching Foe, Garth Davis’ ostensibly mysterious film blending AI, climate crisis, space, and Midwest farming. Young married couple Henrietta (Saoirse Ronan) and Junior (Paul Mescal) sit at the center of this eclectic mix amidst brutal dust storms and perfunctory affection for one another. One day, Terrance (Aaron Pierre), a representative from a technology company seeking to resettle humanity in space, arrives with an offer (or, rather, an order). Junior will join a test group on their space station, leaving Henrietta alone. Except she won’t be alone; to ease the burden, Terrance’s company will “replace” Junior with an identical, AI-driven copy of him that will act and behave as he would. Terrance stays with the couple on the farm, helping Junior and Henrietta “prepare” for this life-altering experience.
Or so it seems because one should never trust someone arriving in the dead of night to upend their life. That is only one suspension of belief that Garth Davis asks of the audience. The biggest, arguably the worst, is the idea that Henrietta and Junior are a couple worth shattering. Davis doesn’t make us care about them as individuals or as a united front. All we initially glean from them is they are unhappy. We don’t know why they are estranged. We see Henrietta rebuff Junior’s advances, but there’s no reason, even though the film indicates one. Looking at their frayed union, you might think they would jump at the chance for a separation. However, they hesitate, if not outright push back. But why? Neither seems precious about their home, work, or obligations. Perhaps their decision to entertain Terrance would make sense if we knew them.
Alas, there’s more obfuscation as Terrance ingratiates himself into Henrietta and Junior’s lives for the sake of “research.” Here, Foe assumes the tone of a psychological thriller, needling Junior’s mental state as his world spirals. A day of unplanned desert passion gives way to a nearby barn engulfed in flames, drawing him towards it. Paranoia about everything engulfs him, from Terrance’s intentions towards his wife to medical experiments on his body. Whether Junior’s concerns are valid is beside the point because Davis doesn’t provide a baseline for comparison. The not-so-suitable replacement is best described as vibes. Davis communicates an ominous atmosphere through highly stylized shots and music that leans heavily on horror influences. His direction is handsome but doesn’t particularly aid the story he’s trying to tell.
But what story is Foe telling? The film never resolves its premise – whose credulity disintegrates the longer you think about it – into something compelling, despite its mishmash of themes. It mostly relegates climate catastrophe to dramatic action set pieces and news report clippings. Whether or not technology companies bear social and economic responsibilities to the greater good is left as kitchen table fodder. Henrietta and Junior’s romance struggles the most to coalesce. Without the initial foundational work, there’s nothing to latch onto as their “love story” messily entangles with the film’s incoherent thoughts on AI. The over-complicated narrative and threadbare script zap away the dramatic weight and breed several unintentionally funny moments and confounding sexual tension between characters that, presumably, shouldn’t exist. (Although, it would’ve been infinitely bolder if it had followed through on the potent chemistry between Terrance and either half of the central couple.)
The cast’s performances can’t bear the narrative and thematic confusion. Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal are two of Hollywood’s most dynamic young talents, and pairing the Oscar nominees should’ve been a no-brainer. However, neither fit well into the film’s atypical rhythms. Ronan modulates well enough between steadfast spitfire and fragile vulnerability, but Henrietta is too unknowable to determine which mode makes sense for whatever scene. Mescal, known best for giving finely tuned, internalized performances, takes big dramatic swings that are too broad in the film’s larger context. (They work better as proof that Mescal can succeed at melodrama.) They have affecting moments and good chemistry together, but the film doesn’t use them effectively. Aaron Pierre seems to be acting in a different movie from them, but his increasingly sinister unseriousness works within the murky confines.
All of Foe’s problems ultimately ladder back to its big twist. Revealing said twist isn’t necessary because it doesn’t matter. Its existence in the first place is the issue, as it warps everything around it into its worst possible version. Garth Davis could’ve made his absurd premise work by dispensing with the mind games and playing his story straight. Instead, the film proudly wears its self-satisfaction in its perceived and unearned cleverness. Twists have value when they exist for more than masking structural weaknesses. If that is all a twist offers, you get Foe, a film that fatally mistakes being obtuse for being profound.
‘Foe’ releases in select theaters and on Amazon Prime Video October 6th.