God's Creatures Review: An Intense, Devastating Look At Expectations And How They Can Shatter Us [Cannes]

For many people, familial bonds take precedence above all else. The people closest to them come before connections with outsiders, before the obvious answer or solution, before doing what's right. This conflicting state of mind and all its complexities are central to the heart of Anna Rose Holmer and Saela Davis' new feature film "God's Creatures," a story about family, obligation, and the true power of love. With impressive leading performances from Emily Watson and Paul Mescal, the film dares to pose the question, "What do you do when a person you love is ultimately better off gone, but your heart won't let them go?" The answer isn't pretty, but it is certainly powerful because of the combination of those performances, Holmer and Davis' directing, writer Shane Crowley's script, and a broodingly atmospheric and arresting score.

"God's Creatures" follows Aileen (Watson), a mother and working-class woman who finds new meaning in the monotony of her Irish fishing village when her son, Brian (Mescal), returns home after leaving the family to move to Australia years prior. While Aileen is overjoyed to have him back, his presence complicates things as he is accused of a serious crime. When faced with who her child may truly be when the layers are pulled back, the proud parent lets her impulses take over as she lies to protect him. However, that choice proves to have serious consequences not only throughout the village but within Aileen's already fracturing family, too. 

The film's intense opening sequence, during which one of the women of the fishing village loses her son in a tragic accident, sets the scene for the tone of the next hour and a half, which is gloomy and morbid amongst a backdrop of cold, wet sea-town life. Aileen, the matriarch of the family, is played expertly by Watson, who has a wealth of credits under her belt — so it's no surprise to see her knock this role out of the park. Aileen is both the deconstruction and the reconstruction of the mother archetype, constantly pushing the boundaries of what it means to love unconditionally and how that affects the psyche. Additionally, her character is the harbinger of grief and loneliness in this film, trying to make sense of her son's achingly long absence. You feel every emotion through her just by looking into her eyes. In fact, her performance as a whole is stunning, but she is simply a marvel through the eyes alone.

A shocking, sad, and brave tale of a lie gone wrong

Mescal is equally intoxicating in his performance as an achingly, and possibly deceptively, charismatic young man with ambition in his soul and some kind of fractured love in his heart. He has something to prove, having been away so long, and you see it not only in his scripted actions but in the choices he makes as an actor: the way he puts such loving focus onto his mother and treats her in ways that even border on ambiguously uncomfortable at times. Toni O'Rourke plays his older sister, Erin, a spitfire single mom who says what she thinks when she thinks it and without apology. Opposite Watson, her role is vital in the family, as she becomes the voice of reason and sense, as does she and Brian's father, Con, played with sharp sincerity by Declan Conlon. Finally, Aisling Franciosi plays the pivotal role of Sarah — one of Aileen's young coworkers who ultimately is the only one brave enough to break her silence, and in turn, the cycle of mental turmoil that has been prolonged by Brian's return — with steadfast bravery. She is fierce and calculated in this role, playing equal parts a person terrified of the small world around her and desperate to change it for herself. Her scenes with Watson are particularly haunting, and you can see how her trauma has affected every part of her body in those moments: her speech, her breath, her mind.

It's hard to understate how the marriage of text and direction really shines in this piece and truly builds the unsettling atmosphere crucial to the events of the story. Crowley's script is both poetic and bare, true-to-life in a way that makes it feel like you're not watching a film but actual moments of someone's day-to-day existence. There were so many powerful lines that stuck out to me during the film's world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. "You don't wanna hear her side?" Sarah asks Aileen during a pivotal conversation as the fabric of their lives has already begun to unravel. "Everyone's got their f—king eyes closed," the character tells Aileen later, as the matriarch is wrestling with the shame and guilt of the aftermath of her actions. Brian tells Aileen before the film's climax, "You have this impossible image of me," which is an apt nod to the fraught impressions we can have about the people we love that, most times, they cannot live up to. That is the heart of this film, coming to terms with your expectations of those closest to you and how to grapple with the moment they nose-dive away from the picture you've painted of them with your love.

During the premiere screening, Holmer told the audience, "Some people make films to answer questions. Saela and I make films to ask them." Holmer and Davis previously worked together on the story for Holmer's incredible feature debut, "The Fits," which she went on to write and direct — and there are just as many questions being asked there as there are in "God's Creatures," but the inquiries are altogether different. In this psychological drama, it's hard not to question how we as an audience are similar to Aileen and how we would act if put in her shoes. The answer doesn't come quickly; It's not an easy thing to interrogate the self about — but therein lies the point. Human beings are the most complicated of God's creatures, and nothing is truly black and white, not even a mother's love. You simply don't know how you're going to handle a situation until you are in it; until you've dug yourself a grave you can't get out of. In "God's Creatures," this inquiry, and the way it forces the audience to look at themselves as harshly as its characters, is not only the film's sturdy foundation but its greatest emotional asset.

/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10

"God's Creatures" premiered as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2022.