Foe: This Is How I Leave You, by Scott Nye
Garth Davis’s Foe opens and closes with a potentially-deadly amount of exposition – it’s the future, climate change has made the world unstable, we can live in space; oh, and there are lifelike robots capable of taking the place of humans. The collision point between these two seemingly-disparate bits of dystopia comes when a mysterious stranger, Terrance (Aaron Pierre), arrives at the farm of a young couple, pitching the husband on a trip to space and his wife on living with a “companion robot” in her husband’s likeness. The audience’s suspicions grow when Henrietta (Saorise Ronan) seems much more onboard with the plan than Junior (Paul Mescal), considering he’s the one who would, you know, get to go live on this spectacular space station while she’s stuck on dusty ol’ Earth.
But all of that is window dressing on a strange, surprising, and often very moving exploration of identity, the roles we play in marriages, and the impossibility of truly knowing what your partner is thinking, and by extension who they are at all. Adapted from a novel by Iain Reid (who co-wrote the screenplay with Davis), it has the same sense of contained mystery as Charlie Kaufman’s adaptation of Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, albeit without the overt surrealism, humor, and media satire. Foe is a more grounded work about the mystery we live with every day.
Though nearly thirty, Ronan’s youthful appearance has allowed her to play adolescent parts right up until the past few years – Little Women’s dual timelines providing an excellent transition point – and it is still striking to see her play a fully-formed adult. Henrietta (“Hen” to Junior) clearly knows more than she’s letting on. What to make of Terrance’s sudden arrival, and the sense that she’s going through a series of anticipated talking points as he explains the program? What, too, do their clandestine conversations indicate? They seem familiar with one another, but it’s almost more unnerving that their familiarity is not romantic.
Ronan plays Hen’s distance from Junior very well, translating a familiar relationship dynamic of women in straight relationships guarding themselves and their conversations around how their partner might react into a science fiction allegory. Hen’s love for Junior is palpable, but he’s left wondering whether she’s pushing him out the door or simply resentful that he has to leave. The truth ends up being both, in a way, and Ronan has to play both sides honestly while keeping the audience at narratively-mandated distance. It’s a very tricky line to walk without alienating anyone, and while reviews suggest that may have precisely happened, I was enraptured.
Mescal, as the film’s main focal point, has an even trickier line to walk. Junior’s pure dedication to his wife and the life they’ve built is overwhelmingly touching, but one gets the sense it can be suffocating as well, perhaps playing into Hen’s distance from him. At one point he asks her not to wear a particular shirt. In any context, it’s a controlling move. When he tells her it’s because she wore it the night they met, and each time she puts it on, it fades a little bit, this directive becomes a tender revelation of his fear they, too, will dissolve altogether, but his great tragedy is he, like many jealous spouses, can only fight against the signs of their possible dissolution, not trust or nurture her love. Mescal’s changing physicality – sometimes the sturdy guardian, sometimes the flailing emotional detective, sometimes the tender lover – is one of the film’s most captivating aspects.
I missed Davis’s Mary Magdalene, but was not very impressed – and in fact kind of put off – by his debut, the Oscar-nominated Lion. Foe has its share of missteps, most especially in scripting its exposition, born from a fear its audience won’t be able to make some key emotional leaps without explanation. Directorially, his skill with actors isn’t always brought to the fore as skillfully as it could be, with a good deal of cutting around scenes rather than resting inside of them. But he and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély (Son of Saul, The Nest) construct a lot of impressive imagery, wielding the Australian desert as a stand-in for the desolated American midwest in a way that’s unconvincing in a practical sense but enrapturing emotionally. And he nurtures a very strong bond between Ronan and Mescal, giving them a bedrock on which to build a relationship that feels at once quite weathered and also completely fresh.
I understand the reservations many have about this film, and I don’t disagree with them, precisely – its tendency to both underinvest in and over explain its premise is frequently frustrating. But there’s a lot of soul in the performances and imagery, and a lot of keen perception of how walls are built within relationships, that I was incredibly moved despite these missteps.