‘Foe’ Review: Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal Anchor a Weighty Sci-Fi Drama

NYFF 2023: Garth Davis retreads familiar genre themes but adds in nuance and heart

"Foe" (CREDIT: Amazon Studios)

Love can make people do crazy, incredible things. It can force people into impossible choices, and it can rupture the effort it takes to keep the feeling intact and sacred. In Garth Davis’ new film “Foe,” love is the central force behind every choice, good or bad, but it isn’t enough to mend old wounds and fend off new ones, not this time.

The film is an emotional rollercoaster bursting full of dynamic tensions, mind-bending twists and shattering truths. It’s the perfect combination of high marital drama and science fiction thinkpiece, and with the lengths the film goes to, “Foe” is a worthy addition to the emotional sci-fi canon.

Davis’ new film, which he co-wrote alongside the original novel’s author Iain Reid, tells the story of Hen (Saoirse Ronan) and Junior (Paul Mescal), a young married couple living a quiet life on a farm in the middle of nowhere. But when a stranger (Aaron Pierre) arrives on their doorstep one night with a bizarre proposal, the couple’s foundations begin to dissolve as they face the realities of their fractured love.

Davis’ film is a bit of a chamber piece, and because it mostly takes place in one location its strength rests on the shoulders of its three leads. Pierre is instantly intriguing as Terrance, the stranger who arrives to give the young couple a proposition they literally are unable—by law—to refuse. He is all at once charming and disgustingly pompous, devious and sweet in equal measure.

It’s easy to see he’s hiding something, but he flaunts his power to mask his intentions, constantly vying for the upper hand in every musing or spat between himself and the other leads. It’s a wonderful star-making turn for the actor, one that will hopefully bring him many more weighty roles to sink his teeth into in the future.

Then there’s the central couple, Ronan’s Hen and Mescal’s Junior. The “Aftersun” star has a lot of work to do in this film and he helms the complicated part with ease, giving us a perfectly damaged man to dissect throughout. His behavior is both relatable and mysterious, and Mescal works in tandem with Davis and Reid’s script to build a canon for his character that invites the viewer to decipher as the film progresses.

Mescal is also great at tapping into Junior’s inner despair and using it as another face for his character in the most vulnerable moments of the film. The performance is undoubtedly brave, one that will be remembered for its fierce willingness to go to the extremes needed to convey the level of pain present in this marriage.

Ultimately, however, Ronan is the beating heart of “Foe,” her role pumping fresh blood into every emotional beat of the story. Mescal works hard, but Ronan is acting circles around him, which really goes to show the caliber of performances we’re blessed with in this story. Her work is full of juxtapositions and contradictions, impulses that make her complexities just as relatable and mysterious as Mescal’s. Why does she put herself through what she does? Why doesn’t he try harder?

There’s a beautifully tragic scene where Ronan is trying to force herself to smile using her hands, poking and prodding and lifting the corners of her mouth as she begins to cry. It sums up the crushing weight of how trapped her character feels, which is crucial to understanding her choices throughout. Ronan gives a powerhouse performance, nuanced and bold all at once.

The film’s power stems even more from its depiction of a fractured marriage, which is undoubtedly Ronan and Mescal’s joint effort. The pair do an incredible job of crafting a layered relationship that doesn’t give away all of its components from the start. The audience is forced to be an active participant in the dissolution of the pair’s relationship and they nurture that participation by making acting choices that serve their emotional turmoil. The two actors feel as if they’ve been together for many years, and that kind of pure chemistry is nothing short of a major asset to the framework of this picture.

But beyond being a fully fleshed out marital drama, “Foe” also boasts an interesting story with great intrigue that makes you want to see how it all shakes down, which in turn solidifies the intensity of the film’s central reveal. Considering the surreal nature of Reid’s works—the author also penned “I’m Thinking Of Ending Things,” the novel that became a mind-bending Netflix feature—the disjointed nature of the story’s timeline feels like a natural choice and does well to render the audience to the mercy of what is unfolding before them.

The sci-fi elements don’t reinvent the wheel, but the screenwriters approach those elements with a sense of reverence that makes them innately feel a bit more novel than we’ve ever seen them before. It feels like a fresh and new take within the sci-fi genre, even though the film is retreading timeless themes—not an easy feat.

The sci-fi edge sticks out as a cerebral concept because of the old world production design of the story’s central location: Hen and Junior’s old farmhouse. The interior of the home has a deeply lived-in feel, the kind that comes with visiting an older family member whose dwellings still reflect the time they grew up in.

It’s a choice that exists in complete contrast to the nature of the world the characters live in, one that is desolate and barren in the outskirts but technologically advanced and streamlined in the cities and central hubs. Patrice Vermette’s work in creating a home that feels warm yet uninviting at the same time is the perfect finishing touch on the overall atmosphere.

By the end of this captivating sci-fi drama, you may be asking one crucial question: Who actually was the foe in this all along? It’s a worthy inquisition, one that can be answered in a myriad of ways based on how you yourself choose to look at Reid’s fable—and that’s the beauty of a tale like this one. Everyone is at fault in some way and, in that respect, it feels more like real life than some far off science fiction fable.

“Foe” is a unique look at the age-old tragedy of a failing marriage and what happens when love isn’t enough to save everything. In using its futuristic edge, the film ends up masterfully capturing the most human elements of our souls, a concept as contradictory as the story’s fiercely warring worlds.

Amazon Studios will release “Foe” on October 6.


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