THE STORY – Hen and Junior’s quiet life is thrown into turmoil when an uninvited stranger shows up at their door with a startling proposal.
THE CAST – Saoirse Ronan, Paul Mescal & Aaron Pierre
THE TEAM – Garth Davis (Director/Writer) & Iain Reid (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 110 Minutes
In the not-too-distant future of 2065, Earth has become so inhospitable to life that we are moving to outer space. The planet’s water has mostly dried up, pushing everyone to cities that have become progressively overcrowded. Science has at least progressed enough that there are artificially intelligent beings, organically human enough not to be called robots, available to the populace. Hen (Saoirse Ronan) and Junior (Paul Mescal) have been making do with Junior’s ancestral farmhouse for a while, but Hen isn’t sure she’s feeling the love from her husband anymore. One night, they get a surprise visit from a mysterious man, Terrance (Aaron Pierre), who tells them that Junior has won the lottery to join the crew on a new space station that is going to house the human race now that Earth is slowly dying. It’s an offer, Terrance explains, that Junior really can’t refuse. Neither he nor Hen are sure how to feel about it, and a year later, Terrance shows up again, saying that the time has come, and to help Hen cope while Junior is away, she will be given a replacement AI version of him. In order to make sure that he’s as close to the real thing as possible, Terrance will live with them for a week, observing and questioning them about their lives and relationship.
If there’s one thing Garth Davis’s “Foe” has a lot of, it’s atmosphere. From the very beginning, you can feel the desolate dryness of Hen and Junior’s surroundings through Mátyás Erdély’s dusty cinematography. Oliver Coates’s score adds to the atmosphere, adding tiny sparks of romance and plenty of tension as Terrance’s increasingly dubious prodding of Hen and Junior pushes them together and pulls them apart. The opening section of “Foe” showcases all of the film’s strongest elements, putting its best foot forward with a shot of Ronan crying in the shower. Ronan has rarely been this emotionally powerful, opening herself up in a performance of striking vulnerability. If Mescal’s vulnerability is slightly less striking, it’s because, at this point, we expect it from him, but he charts Junior’s journey well, slowly bringing the fears and insecurities that plague him to the surface. Together, Ronan and Mescal are as good as you’d expect, and it’s a pleasure to watch two of the most talented actors of their generation share the screen so intimately. No matter how many modes the story goes through, they keep the characters at the forefront, anchoring the film in something aching and real.
The problem, though, is that as the film continues, it keeps shifting between an increasing number of storytelling modes. What begins as a dystopian sci-fi drama turns into a character study, then a marital drama, then a paranoid thriller. By the end, it becomes difficult to determine how exactly we’re supposed to feel about Hen and Junior’s situation because Davis and co-writer Ian Reid (adapting his own novel) keep introducing new story elements that change the focus. While it’s possible this comes together more thoroughly as a novel, it doesn’t translate to screen, throwing the back half of the film into disarray. The only thing keeping “Foe” from falling into irredeemable territory is the quality of Ronan and Mescal’s performances. Their palpable passion transcends the messiness, giving the film more than it deserves but exactly what it needs. Mescal has a big monologue that pushes the film into its final act, which the actor commits to so much that it’s almost cringe-worthy in its earnestness. As he slowly breaks down over what his life has become, Junior’s character arc does as well, leaving the audience to wonder how exactly he got to that point. It’s less about the film not building up to this moment (it does, kind of) and more about the film being structured in a way that obscures what it’s really about until its last act. This could have been an incredibly affecting moment if we felt more connected to Hen and Junior and their relationship before this intrusion. Still, that crucial one-year gap between Terrance’s first and second visits is never shown to us. Instead, it’s moving but confusing, an outpouring of emotion without an object that makes sense.
From the first frame to the last, “Foe” feels like a COVID movie. Not just because it’s mostly two people with one set and a lot of outdoor locations but because it feels very much about moving on from such a life-altering event. Over the course of their relationship, Hen and Junior have had to completely change their way of living. Junior wants to keep going on that path, not wanting to let go of the house that is his last tie to his deceased family members and believing that if they’ve come this far, then they can continue to overcome. On the other hand, Hen wants to move on, believing that the two have been stuck in a rut and that this is an opportunity to get out of it. The push and pull of their relationship dynamic mirrors that of many couples as we have passed the worst days of the pandemic and started to move towards normalcy, or at least a new normal. The deeply felt performances from Ronan and Mescal support this, providing a deep dive into the psyche of this broken relationship. It’s the film itself that is truly broken, though, trying to land a surprising, emotional ending that works in theory far better than in execution. You can see where this story could work – the character arcs are there but hacked to bits; the world-building is intriguing but inconsistent – but between the pages of Reid’s novel and the images of Davis’s film, something has gotten lost in translation. Onscreen, “Foe” turns out to be its own worst enemy.