Paul Mescal’s past 12 months have been scorching thanks to Aftersun and Carmen, but Foe—his second feature at this year’s New York Film Festival, alongside All of Us Strangers—puts an end to that hot streak. That’s no fault of the actor, who delivers a romantically tormented performance that recalls Cat on a Hot Tin Roof-era Paul Newman, and who shares a sweltering chemistry with his co-star Saoirse Ronan. Rather, the culprit is a sci-fi story that spirals about in circles on its way to a predictable and underwhelming twist and an even less satisfying conclusion.
Written by director Garth Davis and Iain Reid, based on the latter’s 2018 novel of the same name, Foe (in theaters Oct. 6) is set on a 2065 Earth that’s been ravaged by droughts, famines, and weather-related calamities. Radio broadcasts provide the apocalyptic details in short, expository bursts, suggesting that Henrietta (Ronan) and Junior (Mescal) are living through the End Times. Residing on a Midwest farm that’s been in Junior’s family for generations, they’re a married couple at the edge of the world, as well as one whose rapport is as prickly as the dry, barren trees that dot the landscape. Theirs is a love among—and of—the ruins, and Henrietta’s despair is the first note struck by Davis’ film, as she showers and stares at herself in a three-paneled mirror while, in narration, she muses that she’s lost a part of herself and fears never being able to reclaim it.
Henrietta works as a diner waitress and Junior is employed at a high-tech agricultural plant where he tends to chickens on an assembly line, and their mundane and stifling existence is interrupted by the arrival one evening of Terrance (Aaron Pierre), an envoy from the Outermore company that helps humans escape the failing planet by moving them off-world. Terrance informs Junior that he’s been selected in a random lottery to be relocated to a self-sufficient space station known as the “Installation,” and when Junior instinctively balks at this separation from his wife and home, the corporate emissary sells it as a “special and unique” chance to be a “better version of yourself.” Henrietta also seems unhappy about this, although from the moment Terrance shows up, she behaves strangely—so strangely, in fact, that it’s immediately apparent that some secret is being kept or some ruse perpetrated.
Since Junior has no choice in this matter (the word “conscription” is thrown around to hammer home that reality), he acquiesces and is told by Terrance that there’s time before his mission preparations begin. That night, Henrietta rebuffs her husband’s bedroom advances but then finds him in the guest room, where she tells him “I missed you” and gives into her own passionate desires. Their carnal encounter is all the steamier for its sense of desperation, urgency, and underlying pain, with Ronan and Mescal conveying both Henrietta and Junior’s intense bond and the concurrent impression that they’re trying to mend it. The next morning, they chat face-to-face in bed and their dynamic remains powerfully enchanting, with Henrietta’s questions and Junior’s evasions radiating the sort of comfortable intimacy and playful friskiness that’s shared by two people who truly know each other.
Foe subsequently leaps forward a year, at which point Terrance returns to inform them that Junior’s trip is two weeks away. To analyze and observe him ahead of his journey, Terrance moves into the farm (against Junior’s objections) and drops a bombshell: to make sure that Henrietta is taken care of, Outermore is going to create a first-of-its-kind synthetic A.I. duplicate of Junior that will take his place during his prolonged absence. This news instigates more of the hothouse tension and hostility that’s a routine facet of Henrietta and Junior’s day-to-day. Nonetheless, with no means of refusing this offer, they get on with the business at hand, which mostly entails lots of puzzling interviews and tests conducted by Terrance, a dashing and creepily cheery stranger who admits to being fascinated by the couple and who appears, to Junior, to be carrying on a clandestine relationship with Henrietta.
The mystery at Foe’s core is rather easy to surmise from the trio’s ensuing interactions, and Henrietta’s fondness for playing a piano that’s been hidden away in the basement, along with snippets of recorded conversations in which she expresses frustrations with her backwards-looking spouse and static life, slowly position her as the material’s true protagonist. Henrietta is a fiery woman being suppressed at every turn, and Ronan embodies her with a palpable disaffection that’s complicated by genuine warmth for her partner (or, at least, the version of him she keeps in her heart).
The two dressed in loose, skimpy, flowy clothes because of their environment’s heat, Mescal matches Ronan sweat droplet for sweat droplet, his Junior an impulsive and stubborn man striving to get closer to Henrietta at the very moment he’s planning to leave. Together, they’re a vibrant, vigorous pair—sad, angry and despondent—and in some of Davis’ numerous scenes of the duo wandering and frolicking through the sun-singed, windswept desert plains, the film channels a bit of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Sweltering Sky with a dash of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven thrown in for good measure.
Evocatively shot by Mátyás Erdély and scored by Oliver Coates, Park Jiha and Agnes Obel, Foe has atmosphere to spare. Alas, it ultimately doesn’t know what to do with it, and resorts to leaning into (oft-nude) Mescal’s histrionics. Let off the proverbial leash in the film’s second half, the leading man goes overboard, wailing, fuming, cackling, and furiously punching walls, but the more energy he exerts, the less Junior feels genuine, and not in an intentional way. Issues regarding artificial intelligence, amour, completeness, rebirth and fresh starts are all fundamental to Davis and Reid’s tale, yet the director’s oblique plotting grows wearisome and his final act’s drama frequently verges on the laughable—and, in its big-revelation scene, tips over into it, after which a prolonged coda reveals that the entire affair is about becoming real via the synthetic.
While Ronan and Mescal are charismatic throughout, their individual and joint magnetism only takes the proceedings so far. Its late melodrama overcooked and self-conscious, Foe proves to be its own worst enemy.
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