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Foe

Paul Mescal and Saoirse Ronan play a couple navigating a dystopian future in this affecting new sci-fi relationship drama from 'Lion' filmmaker Garth Davis.
By Sarah Ward
November 02, 2023
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By Sarah Ward
November 02, 2023
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UPDATE, December 22, 2023: Foe streams via Prime Video from Friday, January 5, 2024.

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Pondering the end of the earth also means pondering the end of people. When the planet that we live on withers to the point of becoming uninhabitable, humanity doesn't just suffer big-picture consequences as a species — existentially, the basic facets of being human are upended as well. So explores and interrogates Foe, the haunting third feature from Australian director Garth Davis (Lion, Mary Magdalene), as well as the latest adaptation of Canadian author Iain Reid's books after 2020 movie I'm Thinking of Ending Things. The pair teamed up to pen the script to a dystopian thriller that looks every inch the stark sci-fi part, using Victoria's Winton Wetlands as its shooting location to double for America's midwest circa 2065, and yet is always one thing above all else: like Killers of the Flower Moon, too, this is a relationship drama.

In his third film to reach Australian cinemas in 2023, his second since earning an Oscar nomination for Aftersun and also one of two in a row made Down Under alongside Carmen, Paul Mescal plays half of Foe's key couple opposite his Irish compatriot (plus Atonement, Brooklyn, Lady Bird and Little Women Academy Award-nominee) Saoirse Ronan. The pair trade their natural lilts for American accents as Junior and Hen, holdout farmers in a world and at a time where there's little hope in the field, their actual fields or for the future. As a title card explains, days on the third rock from the sun are numbered. Also noted in that opening text is the setup moving forward, relocating the population to space stations. And, as Blade Runner did decades ago and The Creator — which is also set in 2065 — adopted just this year, simulated humans are also entwined in this new status quo.

Junior and Hen's marriage is one of lived-in routine, concise exchanges and loaded looks — of resignation and malaise, in fact, with life's realities tampering down the high-school sweethearts' spirits mere years into their wedded bliss. He works at a poultry factory, she waits tables at a diner, and the bleak expanse surrounding their farmhouse sports rows of symbolism; Foe's central couple cling to the wish that the inherited land and their love alike hasn't turned fallow, no matter the signs otherwise. With such barrenness lingering, car lights outside their home one night and then a sharp knock at the door were always going to feel like more than just an ordinary visitor. The cause is anything but an average passerby: he's government consultant Terrance (Aaron Pierre, Old), who has come with conscription orders for the OuterMore project, which is building the off-world installation that earth's residents will soon need to live on.

Like young men before him forced to wage war, Junior doesn't have a choice in the plans to send him to space. With Hen, he also has no say in the next two crucial pieces of information that the calm-yet-commanding Terrance imparts: only Junior is going, but a simulant will take his place, not only looking and sounding but behaving exactly like him, so that Hen isn't left alone. The pair are told that they have around two years to adjust to this news, and that Terrance will eventually come to live with them as that departure date shuffles closer. Swiftly, the dust storms outside have another threat as a source of swirling tension and visible upheaval. In an already-fraying marriage and with an increasingly slipping sense of control, neither Junior nor Hen is pleased about their twist of fate, understandably — but enjoying what they have takes on added urgency.

Even if two of Ireland's best current actors can't share their native tones in Foe, they share the screen with shimmering potency, selling every iota of emotion felt by their characters. Whether only coming to fame in 2020 with Normal People or demanding attention since being a 13-year-old stealing scenes in a BAFTA Best Picture-winner — so, each breaking out in highly anticipated and widely applauded page-to-screen adaptations — Mescal and Ronan keep proving themselves spectacular acting talents, which isn't different here. Both are supremely skilled at being silently, subtly and naturalistically expressive, and so at conveying interiority. Under Davis' guidance, that means cycling through hurt, anger, uncertainty, yearning, surprise, betrayal, affection and hope as Junior and Hen grapple with the full spreadh of responses to their situation, and also navigate the remnants of their long-festering romance. Each giving deeply felt performances that could swell through several countryside abodes, they bring to mind another great on-screen coupling that also tore into marital melancholy: Kate Winslet (Ronan's co-star in Ammonite) and Leonardo DiCaprio (Killers of the Flower Moon) in 2008's Revolutionary Road.

Pierre, too, more than holds up his role as the third point in Foe's acting triangle. Ahead of becoming the voice of Mufasa in upcoming The Lion King sequel Mufasa: The Lion King — which reunites him with filmmaker Barry Jenkins after The Underground Railroad — he finds the ideal balance of enigmatic and intimidating in a movie that's all about shifts big and small. As Pierre's star rises, which it is destined to and fast, this will remain one of his essential performances. Adding to the excellent work all-round is cinematographer Mátyás Erdély (The Nest), who sees the landscape as surreal, foreboding and dreamy all at once. While Foe's backdrop might look like Australia if you're aware that it is, but devoid any ochre dirt and standard outback sights, it also blazes as lonely terrain that's as thorny and knotty as its animal, plant and human occupants.

It could seem ambitious, getting desolate yet heatedly psychological and emotional in Black Mirror-esque environmental sci-fi-meets-AI territory, but Davis and Reid know what Charlie Brooker always has as well: that tales about where the future leads, and the technology it inspires with it, are nothing if they're not actually about people. Although within Foe sits a question about whether accepting and embracing AI replacements for our nearest and dearest is ever possible, what it means to live and love, to work out who we are and want to be, and to grow and progress — with or without tech — is hardwired into this affecting film. This is a movie about how people change and evolve, especially within relationships; how that change and evolution both responds to the climes and occurs regardless of it; and how it can happen together or individually, complete with the heartbreak when the latter applies. Aptly, then, it's an evocative, stirring and exceptionally acted feature that morphs in hindsight the more that's revealed on-screen, poignantly so.

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