God’s Creatures: For Thee Who Didst Me All That Evil, by David Bax
Anna Rose Holmer and Saela Davis (Holmer‘s editor on previous feature The Fits, now promoted to co-director) kick off God’s Creatures with an incisive bit of detail about small town life. In quiet places like the Irish fishing hamlet where our story is set, the sound of sirens makes everyone take notice and stop what they’re doing, feeling a mixture of excitement at the rare spectacle and dread that something terrible may have befallen someone they know. It’s the latter that turns out to be the case for Aileen (Emily Watson). The ambulance is too late to save her friend’s son, who’s just drowned in the rising tide while attending to his oyster traps. There’s something of a silver lining for Aileen, though, as the young man’s funeral brings her own son, Brian (Paul Mescal), home from Australia for the first time in years.
It becomes clear that deaths like that of the young oyster farmer are not entirely uncommon in this town. It’s the kind of place where seemingly everybody smokes cigarettes, not because they’re unaware of the danger to their health but because they don’t have enough prospects to fear a short life. It’s to Davis and Holmer’s credit that they avoid the temptation to romanticize the grinding tragedy. God’s Creatures doesn’t sugarcoat but it’s not poorsploitation either.
In any case, the friction that’s awaiting Aileen has little to do with her economic status. Without going into too much detail, Brian’s return is not nearly as happy an event for everyone in town as it is for her. The tension that comes from finding herself stuck between her lifelong neighbors and her only son is reflected in the arrhythmic, percussive score from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans (also returning from The Fits). It’s not unlike the building anxiety of Jon Brion’s score for Punch-Drunk Love, though God’s Creatures, despite the presence of Watson, is a very different movie.
Still, Davis and Holmer are gifted filmmakers who know that a grim story (and this one does get very grim indeed) doesn’t mean having to abandon visual beauty. They simply find it in the truth of the place rather than imposing it. When Brian decides to restart his father’s own oyster farm, he first has to clean the neglected old traps. Seeing them lined up in the beach, symmetrical but each in its own individual state of seaweed-dripping rust is a nourishing and glorious image of hope among decay.
Aileen’s desperate need to defend her son, be he right or wrong, depends on our believing in the strength of their bond despite his many years away. Lucky for us, the still-electrifying veteran Watson and the astounding newcomer Mescal make the connection and all its prickly history palpable.
Both actors will inspire a range of deeply-felt emotions over the course of the film but, ultimately, this is Aileen’s story and it is Watson who will break our hearts. God’s Creatures is a tragedy about the way that the prescribed role for women as caretakers of men of all ages can clash violently with their own sense of womanhood and female community. And, like all tragedies, the pain comes from realizing that her fate was written before the tale had even begun to be told.