For a director who cut his teeth making short, snappy TV commercials, Garth Davis’s features are remarkably ponderous. One wonders for how long he can subsist on the glamour of the six Academy Award nominations he received for Lion (2016). Despite the fanfare, I thought it was a very ordinary film and suspect a lot of people are fibbing when they say how much they liked it.
Not many folks raved about Davis’s second feature, Mary Magdalene (2018) – an earnest attempt to reclaim the historical Mary from a thousand years of calumnies. It was worthy, verbose and frankly dull.
Now we have Foe, a science fiction tale, long on talk and short on action. There was potentially an engaging film in this material, but the fuse burns slowly from start to finish, and nothing ever goes bang. Davis has collaborated on the screenplay with Canadian author, Iain Reid, who wrote the novel upon which the movie is based. This duo of first-time scriptwriters has expended a lot of words on a narrative which remains shrouded in obscurity.
Davis and Reid visualise the year 2065 as a close facsimile of the present. It may be hotter and drier, with more stylish cars, but by most criteria it’s a shabby, dreary place. The bulk of the story is spent exploring the relationship between the two leads, as if we were watching Scenes From a Marriage with AI.
Junior and Hen, played by two accomplished Irish actors, Paul Mescal and Saoirse Ronan, live in a rambling old farmhouse in an American mid-west that has become a dust bowl. (It’s actually Australia, but for on-screen purposes one dust bowl is much like the next). He has a job at a futuristic chicken processing factory, while she works as a waitress in an unfuturistic café. For most of the time they sit around at home having long, intense conversations.
One day this exciting lifestyle is interrupted by the arrival of a man named Terrance (Aaron Pierre) who says he represents the government. Junior, it seems, has been chosen to take part in an experiment whereby he will spend a couple of years on a space station, as one of a group exploring humanity’s options for escaping a scorched and worn-out planet. Although Junior has no great desire to participate, it seems he has no choice.
The genial Terrance tells him he’s still only on the short list and gives him a year to prepare for the journey. When Terrance returns, it’s with the good news that Junior has made the cut. This necessitates the government agent moving in with the couple, so he can observe Junior and put him through a series of tests.
While Junior is away, Terrance explains, the government will provide an AI simulant – they were known as “replicants” in Blade Runner – to take over his husbandly duties. Junior’s replacement will look exactly like him and be equipped with all his memories. It’s pitched as a way of keeping the marriage alive, although Junior is not convinced it’s a good idea. We, the viewers, can only agree.
Most films nowadays are short on character development, but Foe tends to overdo it. We get too much of Hen and Junior’s domestic life, as the cracks in their relationship slowly reveal themselves. They were childhood sweethearts who married early. Now, in their thirties, they are looking back on the romance of those days, which has gradually evaporated. He doesn’t like her playing the piano, for instance, and she doesn’t like his objections.
On those rare occasions when we step outside the house, the world feels topsy-turvy. Junior has an altercation with a group of strange men who seem to have come from a flying saucer. He runs madly towards a burning barn. Even the couple’s jobs are a mildly disorienting. It’s hard to understand how Hen’s café is always full of people when the film has let us believe they live in a wasteland.
The title may be the biggest source of confusion, as the “foe” is never identified. It could be the AI replica, sent to take Junior’s place; it may be that Junior and Hen have become each other’s foes. It could be Terrance, or perhaps the US government, that exerts an authoritarian control over its citizens. As “foe” is a homonym for “faux”, it may refer to the replacement Junior or the devious game Terrance is playing. It may mean that Junior and Hen’s marriage has become a charade.
When there are too many options there is the danger of inducing fatigue and dissatisfaction in the viewer. A conceit that may seem clever in a novel can be tedious in the cinema, and Foe comes dangerously close to the edge.
The actors work hard to inject a semblance of life – real or artificial – into this sci-fi marriage drama, but Hen and Junior’s relationship is just not that interesting. In retrospect, the film raised a few crucial questions, such as: “Is it possible to prefer a simulant to the real thing?” and, “At what point does ‘artificial’ become ‘real’?” I confess, however, that I only began to reflect on these weighty issues when the movie was over. Until the credits rolled, the sole question in my mind was: “When will this thing ever end?”
Directed by Garth Davis
Written by Iain Reid & Garth Davis
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Paul Mescal, Aaron Pierre
USA/Australia/UK, MA, 110 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 11 November, 2023