October 25, 2023
Five years from now Saoirse Ronan and/or Paul Mescal will have an Oscar in their hands. When that happens we’ll look back through their careers, highlighting all the films that led them down this path. For Ronan, we’ll be starting with her groundbreaking child performances in Atonement and Hanna. Then we’ll fondly remember her navigating female adolescence with Greta Gerwig in Lady Bird and Little Women. For Mescal we’ll start on television with Normal People, and then the explosion of Aftersun and All of Us Strangers. And then for both of them, we’ll see a movie titled Foe that came out in 2023 that they starred in for writer/director Garth Davis. We’ll sit back and think long and hard because we can’t remember if we have or haven’t seen it. Eventually, the memory of seeing it (probably on Amazon Prime) will come back, followed by a sad thought about how a movie starring two of the best actors of a generation amounted to absolutely nothing.
Taking a page out of Jane Campion’s (whom he directed alongside for the television series Top of the Lake) playbook from The Power of the Dog, Davis has his native Australia stand in for the barren American Midwest. The year is 2065 and things are as predictably bleak as we expect them to be. Water and fertile land are some of the most valuable resources, making farming a near-extinct occupation. Hen (Ronan) and Junior (Mescal) still hold on to that way of life in their own way. They live in a crumbling farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, with Hen working as a waitress and Junior as a line worker at the local poultry farm. They seem content with each other, which makes the arrival of a stranger (Aaron Pierre) all the more unnerving.
This stranger has a proposal: Junior has been selected (conscripted would be the better word) to be a part of a mission on a space station far above Earth. Hen wouldn’t be left alone, instead, a perfect clone would be made of Junior to take his place while he’s away. This stranger must stay with the couple for a while to gather all the information needed to make this person-to-clone transition as seamless as possible.
Adapted from the novel by Iain Reid, Foe can’t decide between being a parable about relationships and A.I., or a literal story about life on a desolate Earth. It picks somewhere in the middle, dooming both sides as they each need full commitment in order to work. The introspection of clones taking the place of humans has been done better in Blade Runner and Swan Song starring Mahershala Ali. Does it really matter if a clone is just as lifelike as a human when the characters aren’t interesting?
There are also so many facts about this world that leave so many open questions. Why is Junior so special for this program? What exactly is this mission? If the clone is so perfect, why can’t they just send it into space? Why do Hen and Junior only listen to music from the mid-1900s and drive a beat-up pickup truck that would barely be worth anything in 2023? Some of these questions are nitpicks, but the lack of any gravitas surrounding the thematic material makes these stand out even more.
The two leads do everything they can to keep things interesting, a job they can do with ease. They run the entire emotional gamut with their performances, but none of it registers due to Davis’ detachment from the material. Each of them is forced to overact once the third-act twists come into play. Everything feels so forced by then that it’s almost comical. But it’s not a total trainwreck, so it’s just rather tediously bad.
Son of Saul cinematographer Mátyás Erdély captures the landscape beautifully, showcasing the mystifying wonder that keeps people like Hen and Junior tethered to this patch of dirt. If only Davis could have done the same with his direction and script, as most of his decisions steer away from that intrigue and end up being as interesting as dirt itself.