‘God’s Creatures’ Review: Emily Watson Anchors Powerful, Unsettling Irish Drama

A24

“We’re all God’s creatures in the dark.” It’s a mysterious, yet resonant, sentiment, a pebble of wisdom about humanity that one might roll over again and again, worrying its surface. This line — which gives Anna Rose Holmer and Saela Davis the title of their intimate family drama “God’s Creatures,” set in a blustery Irish fishing village — is one of the life lessons Sarah (Aisling Franciosi, “The Nightingale”) has accrued in her young, tough life. She shares it, ruefully, with Aileen (Emily Watson), her friend and manager at a fish processing plant, over a cigarette.

Sarah is referring to her abusive ex Francie (Brendan McCormack, “Ondine”) when she speaks to Aileen, but the opaque statement, which straddles the line between the dark and the divine, an insight at once profound, ambiguous, and cutting, becomes a prophecy as “God’s Creatures” evolves into a subtly striking suspense thriller.

In 2015, Holmer and Davis collaborated on the critically acclaimed and award-winning “The Fits,” about a young girl in Cincinnati joining a dance troupe, starring newcomer Royalty Hightower. Holmer directed while Davis produced, edited and contributed to the story. For “God’s Creatures,” the longtime collaborators share directing duties on this brilliant, searing sophomore effort.

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From the gyms of Ohio to a windswept Irish fishing village, Holmer and Davis demonstrate a remarkable control over tone, performance and visual and aural storytelling, applying their sensibility to the taut, perfectly structured script by Shane Crowley. (Producer Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly shares a story-by credit.)

Crowley’s screenplay is beautifully layered and surgically precise in its foreshadowing and mirroring, supported by an intelligent edit by Jeanne Applegate and Julia Bloch, and cinematography by Chayse Irvin. In its structure and restraint, the screenplay allows the patient camera movements and striking sound design of rattling oysters and primal drumbeats to speak what is not otherwise said.

“God’s Creatures” is the story of a prodigal son, Brian (Paul Mescal, “Normal People”) who has returned to his small Irish hometown after a jaunt in Australia. What he did there or where he was on the continent Down Under is unclear. What is clear is that he has designs on the oyster license owned by his grandfather Paddy (Lalor Roddy, “Hunger”), who now suffers from dementia. His mother, Aileen, is thrilled to see him and happy to not ask questions; she packs him up a lunch and shuttles him to the oyster field out in the bay with pleasure.

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Mother and son joyfully dance and drink together at the pub. Later, scenes at the same pub will be filled with tension and fear as Aileen starts to awaken to what’s been lying underneath the culture of this small town, where men haul the catch in and the women clean it up. She has upheld this patriarchy unquestioningly her entire life.

The windswept seaside cliffs, the misogynistic society, Emily Watson’s deeply expressive eyes: “God’s Creatures” can’t help but call to mind Lars von Trier’s 1995 film “Breaking the Waves,” which earned Watson a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her first film role. But now, she is no longer the naïf but a village elder, a mother, well-respected in her community and a leader among the tight-knit community of women at work. That all begins to waver upon the return of Brian, her beautiful, inscrutable son, a charming, unknowable rogue so mysterious he might be hiding something more monstrous.

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While Aileen is the backbone of the film, and the point-of-view around which the story hinges, the elusive Brian and the fragile Sarah are the mirrors held up to Aileen that help her to truly see the society in which she lives. Franciosi’s raw emotion and stunning singing voice render Sarah a tragic broken bird that Aileen realizes she must save. Mescal’s quietly brooding appeal starts to turn sour as the film progresses, as Aileen opens her mind to different perspectives.

Perspective is a crucial component of “God’s Creatures,” and Holmer and Davis keep us locked in with Aileen exclusively until it’s time to pass the torch. The filmmaking craft on display and the control over the storytelling and suspense is exceptional. Irvin’s camera pushes in on characters with long, insistent zooms, picking certain people out of the landscape and bringing our eye to them, creating a sense of ominousness and foreboding pressure. That tension, and sense of place, is underlined in the music (by Danny Bensi and Saunder Juriaans) and sound design, from the Irish folk songs to the drums, strings and beats that make up a tribal, feral sound.

From an opening shot of the black, rippling waters that giveth and taketh away from this village, “God’s Creatures” is a powerful reminder that what lies beneath can be deadly and devastating, but also a means of escape, for those who dare to trouble the surface.

“God’s Creatures” opens in U.S. theaters and on-demand Friday, Sept. 30, via A24.