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Foe: Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal are the best thing about this clunky sci-fi


By Sarah Finnan
19th Oct 2023
Foe: Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal are the best thing about this clunky sci-fi

Foe, Garth Davis’ dystopian drama starring Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal, opens in Irish cinemas this week… but is it any good? Sarah Finnan gives her verdict.

“Academy Award nominees Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal star in Foe, a haunting exploration of marriage and identity set in an uncertain world. Hen (short for Henrietta) and Junior farm a secluded piece of land that has been in Junior’s family for generations, but their quiet life is thrown into turmoil when an uninvited stranger (Aaron Pierre) shows up at their door with a startling proposal.” 

So reads the official synopsis for Foe, Garth Davis’s highly-anticipated dystopian drama starring Irish royalty Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal. Like most people, I had high expectations for the project, however, the reality is unbefitting of its stellar cast.

Set in 2065, somewhere in the US, in the remote Midwest, the film is dominated by haunting scenes of scorched earth and isolation. Climate change has reduced the land to nothing more than dusty waste and Hen speaks often of the rain she hopes will come and fix everything. 

While we’re told what year it is, it’s difficult to establish a timeframe though. It’s modern enough for AI to be capable of making exact human replicas, but talk of conscription harks back to olden days. A self-driving car is one of the few indicators of how far technology has come. 

Producers cleverly bypass the need to imagine what the future will look like, relying on confusingly mid-century costumes and setting to avoid ever getting too futuristic. Hen and Junior’s home is ostensibly unchanged. When Terrance, a government emissary, arrives at their door, he remarks that it’s like a time capsule of the past. It’s always been Juniors’ home, but they appear to have outstayed everyone else; theirs is a weather-beaten, farmhouse in a desolate landscape, caught in a vacuum.

Hen plays a battered piano to stay sane while Junior drinks. Food and wine are plentiful and though the two have grown apart, they survive well enough – her working as a waitress at a local diner, him in a nearby poultry processing plant. Their marriage has long passed its sell-by date, but they falter on.

The climate crisis is only worsening, however, and with Earth becoming more and more uninhabitable, the government’s solution is to conquer the final frontier; space. Junior has been chosen as one of the first to make the journey and help colonise it. He has no choice in the matter. Remember when men were drafted for service in the armed forces? Well, this is like that. 

The purpose of Terrance’s visit isn’t to ready Junior as you might expect, but rather to prepare Hen for what’s to come – i.e. when an AI version of her husband will replace him to keep her company. Why can the clone not go up into space instead? That joins a string of other unanswered questions that plague the film. 

A year after his first call, Terrance returns – moving into the family home to observe the two before the mission begins, disrupting married life even more with probing questions designed to get a reaction. The rest of the drama triangulates between the three. 

While the premise has great promise, it never quite realises its potential. The story is cumbersome; clunky. The film masquerades as a sci-fi thriller when, at its core, it’s about a crumbling marriage and the difficulties of meshing two lives together. 

However, where plot fails, the central characters soar. Mescal is mesmerising as a man on the edge while Ronan always keeps you guessing as to what’s really going on. The action and dialogue are slow-moving, but they do their best – Mescal, in particular, who gives a captivating performance; one that will stay with you long after the credits have stopped rolling. 

Based on an Ian Reid novel of the same name, the general consensus is that the story didn’t translate well for the screen. In fact, not even the dream cast could save it. It seems that the film’s commitment to mystery is in keeping with Reid’s style, but the result is frustrating at best, leaving viewers with more questions than it answers – what do the beetles signify? Who are the people in the diner? Why is Terrence English? Why is it called Foe!? 

If it sounds like that Black Mirror episode with Domhnall Gleeson, that’s because it’s very similar… and that episode came first so perhaps this is a chicken-and-egg type situation. Will either actor get an Oscar nomination? The patriot in me would like to say yes, but I fear the film itself lets them down. Notwithstanding the cast, Foe doesn’t hit the mark for me. 

I will say this though, the climate anxiety is real. 

Foe opens in Irish cinemas nationwide on Friday, October 20. Imagery provided by Eclipse Pictures.