“Foe” is a grandly muddled dystopian sci-fi movie starring Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal as a Midwestern farm couple in 2065 (they appear to be the only Midwestern farm couple left). When you hear the film’s premise, which makes it sound like a cross between “Interstellar” and “Blade Runner,” you may think it’s going to be one of those movies in which a pair of critical darlings from the indie world leave their low-budget poetic movies behind to plug themselves into the blockbuster machine. But “Foe” isn’t a visual-effects-laden, box-office-fixated lollapalooza. The movie, the bulk of which takes place in the couple’s 200-year-old farmhouse, is small-scale and intimate, and it’s been designed to milk Ronan and Mescal for every inch of their raw actorly integrity.
It opens with Ronan standing in the shower, weeping. We hear her character, Hen (short for Henrietta), in voice-over, thinking back over her marriage and invoking a heavy but familiar idea: that a relationship will start off suffused with romantic idealism, but over time the magic wears away, and you’re left with something cold and stolid and uninspiring, to the point that Hen says that pieces of herself have fallen away.
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Moments later, Mescal’s character, Junior, with a jocular attitude and jaw-thrusting grin that suggests Mark Ruffalo’s puppy-cute kid brother, enters the picture, and for a while we sink into the lives of this couple, registering their quiet distance from each other — the Antonioni-ness of it all. Yet that perception is entangled, for the audience, with some rather prosaic questions. Like: Why doesn’t this couple have friends? Kids? Pets? What, exactly, do they do all day?
Junior, we learn, works at an industrial chicken plant. Hen — given Junior’s job, is her name the film’s idea of a feminist pun? — is a diner waitress but mostly sits around and mopes. The farmhouse, with its peeling paint and 20th-century trappings, has been in Junior’s family for generations, and he’s committed to staying there; that’s become a source of friction between them. The bottom line is that these two are so isolated it’s no wonder their marriage is falling apart.
An opening title sets up “Foe” as a standard cautionary future-as-doomsday parable. The climate has been destroyed, the cities are ravaged, and the human race is experimenting with colonies in space that the residents of earth could move to. There is also an AI factor: replicants are being dispatched as laborers. The landscape the movie unveils is certainly forbidding, with the farmland razed and divided into giant circular plots of industry. In “Foe,” however, the apocalyptic climate-change world remains mostly off-camera, like a movie that’s playing on a different screen, though it comes to visit Hen and Junior in a weirdly intrusive and personal way.
Terrance (Aaron Pierre), a representative of the (presumably) totalitarian government/corporation/overlords of everything, arrives in a boxy car with sharply glowing headlights that looks like a mid-21st-century DeLorean. (We think: Have the film’s effects designers really gone back to that future?) He has a major announcement. The government is recruiting citizens to spend two years in an experimental space-colonization program. Junior has been chosen, which is to say conscripted; he’ll have to take that journey in a year or two and will have no choice about it. Oh, and there’s another detail. While he’s gone, the government will provide Hen with an AI version of Junior to keep her company. Just like that, “Foe” has gone from being a glum scenes from a marriage to a kinky sci-fi love triangle: Me, my wife, and my replicant.
There are dramatic possibilities to that situation, and up until this point we’re more with “Foe” than not, flowing to its languid rhythms, giving the set-up the benefit of the doubt. But what happens after Terrance makes his big announcement is…strange. A year passes, Terrance returns, but instead of taking Junior away as he promised, he moves in with the couple and subjects them to a series of psychodramatic interviews and tests that require Ronan and Mescal to become showy, Method-acting-class versions of themselves.
Mescal, especially, gets a workout. As the deadbeat dad of last year’s “Aftersun,” he boozed and cried but remained cuddly; in the new and not-yet-released “All of Us Strangers,” he plays a lovelorn queer libertine who is also cuddly. (You wonder if he’s going to make a cuddly gladiator.) But in “Foe,” Mescal puts the Teddy-bear quality aside to have a catharsis that, unfortunately, turns out to be a meaningless catharsis. The more he wails and shouts and suffers, the more we think, What is going on in this movie?
When you learn that a sci-fi drama is going to center on a replicant, you can be relatively certain of several things. The movie is probably going to demonstrate that the replicant has something resembling human feeling — because if it didn’t, it would just be a boring old machine. (This used to be a creepy and resonant idea; going forward, it’s already starting to feel like corporate advertising for the AI industry.) What’s more, 40 years after “Blade Runner” and the mountain of chatter that film has inspired about whether Harrison Ford’s Deckard is a replicant or not (an issue so murky and never quite coherently spelled out in the film itself, whichever version you watch, that I don’t even agree with what Ridley Scott says about it), you also know that it’s quite possible that we’re going to be seeing a “human” character who is, in fact, a replicant. Iain Reid, who wrote the 2018 novel on which “Foe” is based (he also co-wrote the script with the film’s director, Gareth Davis), has seen the same movies we have and isn’t shy about drawing on them.
The Paul Mescal character in “Foe” is in for a big surprise. So is the audience. The trouble with the movie is that once you’re confronted with the surprise, and you think back over what you’ve been watching, it makes even less sense. By the end, we dimly perceive the outlines of a message, though it’s not exactly a profound one. I would sum it up as, “Every true love needs a fake half.” To put forth this message, the film twists itself into knots of contrivance and confusion. “Foe” wants to end with a “Whoa.” Instead, it leaves us going “Huh, interesting” and “Whuuut?” at the same time.
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