Emily Watson and Paul Mescal are mother and son in this strange, almost-thriller about a lie with terrible consequences
A destructive ripple tears through a weather-beaten Irish town in directorial duo Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer's increasingly ominous almost-thriller God's Creatures, a quietly disturbing, intriguingly opaque little film about a mother whose world falls into chaos after her son returns home after years of absence.
Emily Watson gives a brilliant turn as Aileen, a fish plant worker with a keen sense of family and community. Her son, Brian, is played by Normal People’s man of the moment Paul Mescal – though anyone looking to recapture the feeling of his loveable Connor from that show will be sorely disappointed; superficially charming and having returned from Australia after a failed stint trying to make his fortune abroad, this character couldn’t be further from the sensitive soul that made Mescal's name.
As a batch of fungus-infected oysters trigger a shutdown at Aileen's fish plant, Brian's arrival has as similarly poisonous effect on the community he left behind long ago. When he's accused of a horrific crime, Aileen makes the decision to lie for him, a choice that splits the town and her immediate family apart. But has this seemingly tight-knit community always hidden a darker underside, and has Brian's arrival merely exposed a rot that has been there all along?
There is something slightly, perhaps intentionally Oedipal about the relationship between mother and son, and Watson gives a remarkably rich performance with very little dialogue at her disposal, thoughts and feelings expertly told in the lines of her face and granular expressions. Mescal does good work subverting his sensitive guy persona, convincing us of his charisma before subtly exposing a darker side, while Aisling Franciosi – who sang beautifully in The Nightingale and does here too – is well-cast but slightly underused as Sarah, another fish plant worker who Brian takes a liking to and with whom he may or may not share a complex history.
Ominous groans on the soundtrack, paired with lengthy shots of Watson’s harrowed expression, almost push this movie into the realms of horror. It makes sense: the characters are living out their own kind of unreal nightmare – “the world has turned upside down,” comments Aileen – and the film’s increasingly gloomy cinematography – and the camera’s obsession with fish carcasses slopping over the edge of conveyer belts – injects proceedings with an almost apocalyptic air.
In the final act, the film takes a turn that may strike many as implausible, though in retrospect it feels like a bold choice that contributes to this being a more interesting piece overall, flipping the narrative on its head in a way that invites us to go back and maybe search the film for clues for a different drama that has played out, years ago, behind the scenes.
Some will likely deride the lack of deeper characterisation on show here – motivations and answers are in short supply, while important details are never explicitly revealed. But ultimately the lack of context does well to give this murky drama – ostensibly about the lengths a mother will go to protect her child – its strange power. And the title, we realise… well, that was something of a cruel joke all along.
God's Creatures was shown at the Cannes Film Festival 2022. It is released in UK cinemas on 31 March.Where to watch