Writer Jimmy Dougan / Images courtesy of A24
What a hat trick for Irish cinema. In May of last year, we were treated to Colm Bairéad’s sublime The Quiet Girl followed by the mournful The Banshees of Inisherin in October.
Now comes God’s Creatures, one of my most anticipated films of the year. It’s a film wholly different from both and provides a challenging, if drawn-out, portrait of a mother in crisis.
Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer’s film begins with an unexpected arrival. But this guest is no stranger.
Aileen’s (Emily Watson) son has just reappeared, unannounced, after a long stint in Australia. Now he’s returned to the tiny fishing town in Kerry, but the big question is why? Brian (Paul Mescal) gives vague answers to any question posed, something which takes on dread-sinking significance as the film progresses.
While her husband Con (Declan Conlon) and daughter Erin (Toni O’Rourke) are rightfully wary, Aileen is delighted.
Aileen works as a shift manager in a dreary seafood processing plant but has an optimistic temperament, and has kept up the payments on Brian’s fishing licence. She’s even willing to commit theft to kickstart his career as an oyster farmer. When a police officer knocks one night and informs her of a sexual assault allegation against her son, Aileen doesn’t hesitate to be Brian’s alibi.
She barely takes a minute to consider the ramifications of what she’s doing. She and Brian were technically together, but they were at the local boozer and not at home as Brian claims.
After making her accusation, the victim Sarah (Aisling Franciosi) finds herself an outcast.
Director’s Davis and Holmer, and screenwriter Shane Crowley, aren’t interested in the inherent ambiguities and unfillable gaps of the assault. They avoid didactic moralising in favour of something far stranger and unsettling: one of the most fascinating things about this film is its provocative lack of interest in the how or the why of this assault.
Instead, it asks us to consider why Aileen does what she does – and her failure (or refusal?) to consider the genuine, very serious, ramifications of what she’s willing to do to protect Brian. We don’t see the assault. Davis and Holmer simply show us a view of the town at sunrise: this violence didn’t begin on the town’s pier, and nor will it end.
This violence affects everyone, and everyone is culpable for allowing this to happen.
None of these ideas would be worth much time if the film around them couldn’t match their complexity. Fortunately, Davis and Holmer imbue God’s Creatures with such poetic seriousness it’s impossible to look away. Mountains rise above the village like the rubble from some natural disaster, oyster racks stick out of the black waves like shipwreck splinters, and a lone tide marker looks like a skeletal arm.
It takes a quintessentially Irish idyll and renders it unwelcoming and uncanny. The red light above the pub window barely illuminates the night: what on Earth could lurk in the darkness?
For better and worse, God’s Creatures occasionally has the feel of a documentary. The processing plant Aileen works in is rendered with oppressive mundanity but the many sequences of oyster harvesting drag. It’s a feeling exacerbated by the thick accents and low-key, mumble-filled dialogue.
My family is Irish, but even I could’ve done with subtitles here.
That being said, it all coheres to paint the picture of a town seemingly untouched by aggressive modernism, out of time and out of place. It’s set in Kerry, yet Davis and Holmer treat this as a primal, timeless struggle. Their argument is a blunt one, we are all complicit.
The pace slackens in the middle but snaps back when the accusation is made, and the film leans into legitimate creepiness with Chayse Irvin’s eerie cinematography. There’s also a standout score from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans which screeches and thuds unexpectedly.
Mescal is frighteningly against-type here. He’s charming, but there’s always something a bit darker going on behind his eyes. He has an aura of violence about him, or rather the capability for violence. It gives later scenes a proper intensity.
Watson is typically affected by her desperation, even if Crowley’s script gives her little history or subtext to illuminate. Perhaps this is a conscious choice: she is nobody, so she could be any one of us. She and Mescal navigate a thrilling climax so drenched in symbol and allegory it’s outright folkloric.
The sea gives, the sea takes.
God’s Creatures – official trailer:
God’s Creatures will be screened at Mockingbird Cinema, at The Custard Factory, from 31 March to 6 April, and at the MAC in early April, with exact dates coming soon.
To read more about the BFI go to: www.bfi.org.uk/film-releases
To read more about A24 go to: www.a24films.com
To read more about Mockingbird Cinema go to: www.mockingbirdcinema.com
For full listings and links to online ticket sales visit: www.mockingbirdcinema.com/production/gods-creatures/ and www.macbirmingham.co.uk/whats-on/cinema