This film, from screenwriter Shane Crowley and co-directors Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer, is a tense cine-ballad of guilt and shame. It is set on a remote coastal village in Ireland where there is a precarious living to be made from fishing and oyster farming and the wind’s howling creates an unearthly and doom-laden atmosphere.
This is a movie which has some dramatic redundancy and is sometimes submerged too deeply in its own sense of tragic destiny. But it is fiercely acted by its excellent cast, including Emily Watson as Eileen, the careworn mum who has been deeply affected by a prodigal-son drama in her life. The oedipal element here may have taken some inspiration from David Siegel and Scott McGehee’s 2001 drama-thriller The Deep End with Tilda Swinton as the protective mother taking desperate steps for her son. The presence of Watson in this film, along with its sombre, almost ritualistic singing scenes, brought back for me a tiny echo of Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves.
Watson plays a supervisor at the local fish-preparation plant; her grownup daughter and baby still live with her and her husband, who is a hardworking fisher. The community is devastated by the loss of one of its young men, a fisher drowned at sea, and Watson is as distraught as any. But attending the wake, she is astonished and delighted when her son, played by Paul Mescal, walks into the pub out of the blue. This is a man who had left the village years before to seek his fortune in Australia; he had not kept in contact and has now returned with no great plans other than to live rent-free in the family home and resume the fishing work he had professed to hate, in a village he once said he was sick of. One of the reasons he left was that he may have had his heart broken by a local woman, played by Aisling Franciosi, who by that token may have broken Watson’s heart as well – depriving her of her cherished boy.
Mescal cleverly creates this young man’s persona: cool, confident, charming in his way, but also rough-hewn, with an edge of resentment and violence. His reappearance triggers an intense irritation in his father, who now feels almost like a slighted lover, as Eileen dresses up to go out for drinks with their son. One night Eileen is called down to the police station to give a statement. A charge of rape is to be laid against her son by a complainant whose identity she can easily guess. Can Watson give an alibi for her son, and swear, on oath, that he was at home with her? Her answer to this question sets in train a terrible series of events.
There is a deadpan irony in the title, as there is no great comfort for these people in thinking that they are God’s creatures and therefore eligible for divine love and care. Rather, it seems as if they have been created to fend for themselves by an uncaring cosmic force, left to live and die in this stark and unforgiving place. It is a tough story, told with conviction.
• God’s Creatures screens at the Cannes film festival.