Halfway through ‘God’s Creatures,’ the powerful second feature from filmmaking duo Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer, workers at a seafood processing plant on the Irish coast go through the bloody gutting fish, eventually emptying a vat of bloody, flesh-filled water into a waste container. As a wave of red slime fills the screen, the sight recalls an equally uncomfortable blood-draining scene in “Leviathan,” the visceral 2012 documentary that showed viewers the grueling drudgery of working on a boat. giant peach. In “God’s Creatures”, Davis and Holmer take the opposite approach, keeping the scope of the story small, but they achieve an equally accurate and captivating portrayal of the location. The film shines and burns beyond its scale, offering an immersive portrait of a unique community and a vast parable of trust, complicity and confrontation.
“God’s Creatures” doesn’t start like the tense psychological drama it develops into: it opens with the seaside village where Aileen (Emily Watson, in a masterful performance) lives with her family and scratches while working at the aforementioned factory. . When her jovial son Brian (Paul Mescal) returns home unannounced after spending several years off the grid in Australia, she is overjoyed – and she supports Brian’s efforts to earn a living from illegal fishing and oyster farming. As the film progresses, the weather and legal scrutiny of the area intensifies, and Brian’s contempt for both grows; a creeping sense of dread radiates from the screen even as the stakes remain abstract. They quickly come together, however, when Aileen’s co-worker Emma (Isabelle Connelly) accuses Brian of sexually assaulting her and Brian asks Aileen for an alibi. Caught between protecting the son she wants to believe in and telling the truth about his whereabouts, she must make a choice that will affect her entire home and community.
Although many promotional materials for “God’s Creature” barely describe it as a movie about a woman lying for her son, the specific nature of the lie – shielding her son from another woman’s allegations of sexual abuse – gives the film a biting urgency, harnessing its intimate character portrait to speak to larger issues of loyalty, privilege and the impact of collective complicity. The image of Brian’s golden boy haunts the film, with public scenes of the community closing ranks to protect him at quiet times when his facade fades. The film asks if his mother, who initially states that her son “has never laid hands on a woman in his life”, can be certain of his innocence based on his rose-tinted image. How can family and friends make sense of someone’s alleged violence when it is against someone they know?
As the film illustrates, avoidance and denial aren’t answers, and they don’t absolve anyone of their guilt. By diving directly into this topic and showing what true solidarity requires, the film sends an incisive feminist message that feels particularly salient after #MeToo and other empowerment movements provoke public defenses of alleged perpetrators of the from those who do not believe their relatives are able of misconduct — even here on the Harvard campus. More broadly, the film details the cyclical nature of patriarchy in the city of Aileen, showing how everyone’s resigned complicity keeps them all trapped in the same corrosive power dynamic.
As this central narrative unfolds, “God’s Creatures” is anchored in its striking visuals, which show Aileen’s work at the factory and Brian’s illegal fishing operation in unflinching detail. The film constructs a vision of the Irish coast that is both beautiful and perilous. Davis and Holmer captivate with their depiction of the often hostile natural world, which seems so powerful that it becomes a character in itself. The sun-kissed shots of Brian tending to his oyster farms and Aileen rushing along the cliffs to see a dead body brought up from the water are strikingly beautiful and atmospheric.
Producer Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly and writer Shane Crowley based the story on the town in Ireland where O’Reilly grew up, and the deft cinematography (all on 35mm film) whose settings are evoked with a such detail that they feel familiar. The actors’ technical preparations lend added realism to their interactions with the harsh landscape; as they told the audience during a Cannes Q&A, Watson practiced gutting fish to prepare for his role in the seafood factory and Mescal spent time in Ireland to learn the tricks of the trade from the fishermen.
In addition to bringing layers of lush landscapes and visual texture to the film, the natural world also acts as a litmus test of its characters’ instincts, and their reactions to environmental threats speak to their core traits. From the village tradition of mothers refusing to teach their children to swim (because they don’t want them to jump in to save someone, only to drown) to Brian’s confident disregard for tidal hazards, the filmmakers skillfully weave storyline and setting, constructing the opposing forces of communal passivity and male entitlement that shape the plot. A triumph of sharp visual style and resonant writing, “God’s Creatures” shows that Davis and Holmer are a pair of co-directors to watch.