“Hushed, but searching and steely-eyed drama.”
by Ken Bakely
Her response is immediate. Aileen (Emily Watson) has been called into the police station of the small, Irish fishing village where she lives. She has been told that her son, Brian (Paul Mescal), stands accused of sexual assault, and she is asked where Brian was on the night in question. Was he at home with her, thus giving him an alibi? Aileen says yes, almost as an instinct. She says it then and she’ll say it again, and it furthers Sarah (Aisling Franciosi)’s status as a pariah for laying the charge in the first place. Aileen has said her son was at home, and so he couldn’t have done it. The problem is that this isn’t true, and Aileen knows it.
The moment when she gives the answer is at the exact midpoint of Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer’s God’s Creatures. We have become ensconced in this isolated, hardscrabble town, where the denizens and the local police see their job as making things go away, as to not cause disruptions. And we know that Aileen has cherished every moment she can get with Brian – when the film begins, he has come home after several years away in Australia, having left without warning, traveled without contact, and returned without announcing. The family is fractured – regarding Aileen’s husband, Con (Declan Conlon), there is no love lost between father and son – and she wants to put the past away and move forward. Then she is called into the station, and she is asked that question, and she gives that answer.
It is a truly harrowing thing to say – a clear lie of profound magnitude – and the movie doesn’t pretend otherwise. But God’s Creatures digs deeply and hauntingly into Aileen’s mind as she lives with its consequences, caught between the bonds of family and community and the realization that a heinous crime may have very well been committed by her son, and she’s helped cover it up. It’s about this person, in this environment, and what has led her to each moment. Chayse Irvin’s camera frames the film in cold and damp tones, matching the chilly and harsh tones of the hushed, but searching and steely-eyed drama playing out.
Watson is outstanding here as Aileen – her performance is shrouded in a stormy pall, presenting a character who desperately tries to hold on as she careens through the mayhem she’s confronted with. So much of this story is about reactions: she’s plunged into these events – Brian returns out of the blue, and then everything happens – and she decides what she has to do next, and then the consequences follow. This is not to say she isn’t given autonomy, but that the film is so forensic and precise in exploring the experience of being part of everything that’s happening, knowing that you can’t separate the individual from their impact. Watson leads a strong cast here, but particular mention must be given to Franciosi, who delivers a quietly, intensely blistering performance as Sarah, who sees the town’s leading men closing ranks around Brian and lumbering on in a smothering silence, leaving her out in the cold. She is given a few big scenes and moments – one late scene with Watson comes to mind – but her smoldering presence throughout, hurt and haunted, makes for a wrenching turn.
It makes sense for Davis and Helmer to emphasize the subtleties in how these characters interact and reflect more than anything else: God’s Creatures studies the immediate inner tensions of the people involved and how they relate to the pressures and currents of their surroundings. The village is ossified – a stagnant local industry seems to call further attention to its rigidly oppressive values – and its unfair order is enforced through stony, mechanistic processes that are executed through a sharp indifference. It’s all presented so matter of factly. Shane Crowley’s script, based on a screen story co-written with Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly has the stiflingly intimate scope of a short subject or a tiny chamber play, and there are times when the story seems to call out for a little more guided examination of its story’s heavy reverberations, especially as it reaches a sudden climax. But there’s also much here that shows great ability to lay the groundwork in the first place, which makes the film as icily intense and perceptive as it is in the leadup. There is some important work done at the very beginning – a bracing first scene, seeming at first unrelated to the story that follows, and set in the sea off the town’s coast. The water is cold and choppy; deep and dark. There is so much that exists under its surface, but as we’re told early on, many don’t want to look within and engage with what they might find.