Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jan 23, 2023 4:01 pm 
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Trouble in an Irish fishing village

Just to be clear, God's Creatures is a somewhat  flawed film. Many find its basic theme, of a mother who covers for the wrongdoing of her son in a primitive setting, a bit too familiar.  Too much of the details of characters and events are left unexplained or feel superficial.  We seem to be expected to take it on faith that the story is profound and authentic.  It leaves one unsatisfied.

But the film draws us into a painterly atmosphere dripping in authenticity and mood. The rough Irish island fishing village where all  this transpires  is damned authentic. The big lumpy black rocks hovering round the rising sea.  All of that. Especially authentic is the local oyster-processing plant with its hair-netted ladies talking tough and sorting junky looking shells or cutting up fish.  One is drawn into the warm small houses, the glowing little pub.  A young woman  sings an Irish folk song a cappella at a funeral.  It's too beautiful not to be real. Later she sings in the pub.  

Aileen O'Harra, who anchors things, played by Emily Watson in a superb performance, is in charge of the ladies at the fish and oyster sorting plant and dominates the domestic and pub scenes.  Much older now since Breaking the Waves, with ratty hair and  ruddy cheeks she has a convincingly weathered look that defines this film.    Eileen is caring for a baby. The baby Eileeen is dondling is the child of her older daughter Erin (Toni O'Rourke ), a single mother and a truth-teller, who like Eileen's husband Con (Declan Conlon) doesn't share the euphoria over Brian's return. Then a funeral comes, for a young fisherman swept out by the tide.  And right after that, Eileen's son Brian  (Paul Mescal, scarily good, discomfitingly likeable) appears bringing complication and confusion.

Brian's father Con will barely speak to him, while Eileen welcomes him unquestioningly: they go to the pub and dance together almost like lovers.  Brian comes back to living with his mom and dad. His grandpa is there too, Paddy (Lalor Roddy), who has dementia.   We don't know whether to side with father or mother, because we don't know much about Brian, how he left, why he left, what he did.  And there has not been a word from him in seven years.  He is the prodigal son, and only now they learn he has been in Australia most of this time.  What he did there, he never explains. 

Brian starts everything over again, fixing up broken oyster beds to take on Paddy's license kept paid up for him by Eileen. Then, during a moratorium at the processing plant due to fungus, there's a women, Sarah (Aisling Franciosi) complains of assault and rape by the port after the pub, and she accuses Brian. He says he was at home with his parents and Eileen backs him up, knowing it's not true.  Sarah and Brian used to be so close when they were young Eileen and Sarah's mother joked that they'd be in-laws one day. Sarah was the woman who did the a cappella singing. She's not singing now. The village takes Brian's side. But Eileen, starting to see her son's true nature, turns against him.

Now the well-edited film accumulates suspense and doubts with growing hostilities enough to seem what the highly favorable review of Katie Walsh for The Wrap calls "a subtly striking suspense thriller." She points out that in the last part of the film Aileen starts to see the misogynous nature of the village society. The way women are used and abused comes out in the mockery and exclusion of Sarah by chorus in the pub. But maybe it's not a thriller. We know too well what's what here. Austin Collins of Rolling Stone rightly says it's a "miniature character study" and "a psychological drama." No, it's a thriller; but one whose shocks come too fast for us to care, a thriller that implodes and fizzles into a tragedy with a happy ending - for someone.

There is much to praise here. I've mentioned the editing. Theres also the clanging, drumbeat score that is superb except that it winds up doing a little too much of the heavy lifting. The controlled imagery of sea and rock and the surprisingly nice houses and the faces, and the Irish songs. There's a long, long continuous shot focused on a face driving away at the close, with a lovely Irish song with a chorus backing it up. It's impressive, sure enough. But in the end I was more admiring the artistry than feeling the feelings. Except for Emily Watson. I'll remember her weathered face and wispy hair, the brooding skies, and the women's hands and mouths and their cigarettes, for when they talk, they smoke.

Surprisingly, the filmmakers' first work was The Fits (ND/NF 2015), about a young black girl studying dance in Cincinnati, where Anna Rose Holmer was the only one listed as director, Saela Davis as co-writer, for what was more a wordless visual diary, more an extended short than a feature. They've certainly dived in deeper here, pun intended. And if God's Creatures feels a little too intentional and self-conscious in its blend of mood and setting, song and conflict, it's a great step forward from that 78-minute debut feature.

God's Creatures, 100 mins., had a Cannes premiere (Director’s Fortnight), showed at Woodstock, and was released in the US, Canada, and Spain in Sept. 2022. Screened for this review as part of the Mostly British Festival of San Francisco (Feb. 9-16, 2023)[. Metacritic rating: 71%.

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