New York 2023 review: Foe (Garth Davis)

“The starkest distinction of Foe is how its protracted running time compensates for a paucity of significant incident.”

Garth Davis’ Foe is paradoxically about too much and too little. It’s a film whose genre trappings remain frustratingly discrete, not necessarily melding science fiction with romance as much as smashing them together to see if they’ll cohere. There is no shortage of rich potential to mine this fusion for philosophical contemplation. Instead, it has accomplished the feat of giving the most vociferous critics of Steven Soderbergh’s adaptation of Solaris a new cinematic pariah to denigrate.

The plot, such as it is, occurs in a near-future American Midwest, where climate change has decimated crops and made the land largely inarable. There is no indication, other than a title card, that Davis has any insight or interest in how the cultural characteristics of the Midwest would accommodate an apocalyptic scenario. As we follow the central characters of Hen (Saoirse Ronan) and Junior (Paul Mescal) traversing this desert landscape, the aesthetic treatment of dystopic alienation is akin to an episode of Courage the Cowardly Dog directed by someone who watched a highlight reel of Terrence Malick’s work on YouTube.

But I digress: Hen and Junior are on the brink of losing the farm, subsisting primarily on Hen’s earnings from her waitress job in a diner that’s surprisingly popular for the middle of nowhere. They are provided a possible solution in the arrival of Terrance (Aaron Pierre), a representative from a corporate-cum-federal entity whose offer to send Junior into space for developing off-planet habitation is more of an ominous directive. But the evident strain of two years apart may be enough to break an already fragile bond between husband and wife, and as Terrance ingratiates himself further into their lives, stranger things only ensue.

While this summary may seem abbreviated for a nearly two-hour film, the starkest distinction of Foe is how its protracted running time compensates for a paucity of significant incident. Davis strains for encroaching claustrophobia with scenes of Terrance conducting separate interviews with our leads for the purpose of creating an artificial replacement for Junior. Pierre’s effete performance is short of full-on moustache-twirling intensity as his vaguely pansexual demeanour thrives on cliches and regressively exoticized villainy (a moment where he offers Junior a joint, which cuts to Hen playing the piano, exudes less menace and more an evocation of Reefer Madness).

He’s not to blame, however, for the script, co-written by Davis and Iain Reid, author of the source novel. None of the allusions to corporate overreach or ecological degradation meld organically with the epistemic uncertainty that threatens the film’s central love story. Ronan, one of the most gifted actors of her generation, imbues as much conviction as possible into Hen’s broad proclamations of desired freedom from a stultifying marriage. But she wastes her talents on a character whom Davis and Reid use to gratify the most rudimentary of feminist talking points concerning liberation and self-actualization. Mescal fares just as poorly, throwing himself into bouts of histrionic anguish as he slowly loses a grip on his sanity. This all comes to a head in a twist that is only clever by half and emotionally counterfeit due to the script’s shoddy character development.

As I’ve indicated, there’s a talented cast and crew who have dedicated their time to this project. In isolation, one can almost imagine Mátyás Erdély’s windswept cinematography or Ronan and Mescal’s ephemeral hints at a shared history as promising fragments of a better movie. But the supreme failure of Foe is its utter disinterest in interrogating either the ethical or socio-political dimensions of its premise. It repurposes scattershot remnants of the past, including most inexplicably a soundtrack of mid-1950s pop songs that enunciate an apocalyptic subtext, for solipsistic ends. “Strange how dying can still be beautiful,” Hen tells Junior. It’s a line that’s unprompted by any diegetic cause, yet inadvertently reveals the facile cynicism underlying the entire project.