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‘Foe’ Review: Beneath Stunning Visuals and Emotional Angst, A Film Whose Greatest Foe Is Itself

Dir. Garth Davis - 3 Stars

Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal play a married couple facing a major life change in "Foe."
Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal play a married couple facing a major life change in "Foe." By Courtesy of EPK.TV
By Makenna J. Walko, Contributing Writer

What does it mean to outgrow a place, or a person, you once called home? Are there parts of your being that are completely irreplicable? And what is it, exactly, that defines you?

These are the questions at the heart of Garth Davis’ latest release, a gripping adaptation of Ian Reid’s novel “Foe” that contains echoes of sci-fi films like “Interstellar” and psychological thrillers like “Don’t Worry Darling.” Although “Foe” may not succeed in offering answers, it certainly explores these existential questions, leaning into its emotional complexity with dexterity and thoughtfulness.

“Foe” opens in a world that has been ravaged by climate change. As the planet becomes increasingly uninhabitable, humanity has been forced to look to the stars in search of hope for the future. Those selected by the government to pioneer these extraterrestrial missions have no choice but to comply — but the loved ones they leave behind will not be on their own.

In the year 2065, Henrietta “Hen” (Saorise Ronan) chafes against the solitude and monotony of life in the isolated Midwest. Oblivious to her restlessness, her husband, Junior (Paul Mescal), can’t imagine a life beyond the walls of their ancestral family farmhouse. But when a government agent appears unexpectedly to inform Junior that he’s been drafted into the space exploration program, both he and his wife have to confront the startling reality that the quiet life they’ve known is over. As they grapple with Junior’s impending departure, the stress on their marriage mounts, coming to a head when the couple are informed that while Junior is gone, a biological replica of him will take his place to keep Hen company.

For Saorise Ronan, the film is unquestionably a triumph. Her poignant portrayal of a woman struggling to steady herself in the midst of a devolving marriage is nothing short of haunting, the fire that brings “Foe” to life. Although the film’s dialogue feels somewhat lackluster, Ronan’s delivery is powerful enough to convince viewers to overlook the script’s shortcomings. When she is told her husband will be replaced by his clone, for example, Ronan’s hysteric incredulity mixed with shimmering rage is practically tangible.

Paul Mescal also shines opposite Ronan, their chemistry undeniable. Mescal recaptures some of the magic of his emotionally-fraught performance in “Normal People,” effortlessly stepping into the role of a complicated character grappling with a major life change.

Hen and Junior’s unraveling relationship is the driving force of the film, mirrored by the destruction of nature around them. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, director Garth Davis made this sentiment explicit. “What we were really interested in was how the relationship echoed the state of the planet and exploring our interconnectedness,” he said.

The marriage is the source of an intimate exploration of love, agency, and identity, but it sometimes overshadows the plot’s more concrete building blocks. The actual framing of the story — the need to escape Earth and explore space — feels like a narrative tool that is used early to explain Junior’s mission and quickly discarded. From there, any semblance of a driving storyline dwindles until the film’s closing scenes. This speaks to a larger issue with pacing: For long stretches, the film drags, while at other times the plot unfurls so quickly it seems to trip over itself in a hurried build and release of tension.

Even these climactic moments fall a bit flat. The film reaches an emotional fever pitch, but this doesn’t change the fact that its most ambitious plot twists are ultimately predictable.

However, the film distracts viewers from these narrative flaws with stunning cinematography that steals one’s breath away. Warm, muted hues fill the scenes, reflecting the aridity and emptiness of the parched landscape. The bareness of the scenery effectively heightens the emotional tension and echoes the starkness at the heart of the film. Thematically and visually, “Foe” manages to turn desolation into beauty, death into poignance.

The film also uses sensory details to evoke a bygone era, playing with key themes of change and the passage of time. Between the crooning tones of Skeeter Davis’ 1962 hit “The End of the World”and the retro trappings of the classic diner where Hen works, viewers could be forgiven for forgetting the film actually takes place 42 years in the future. Old-fashioned setting, music, and costume choices throughout the film immerse viewers in a world that feels trapped in the past, much like Junior himself.

Although “Foe” is undoubtedly successful in developing the visual and psychological impact of the few settings at its center, this masks a broader failure in worldbuilding. Hen and Junior occupy a homestead so isolated as to be almost repressive, and nearly every scene in the film unfolds either there or in the sprawling natural landscape surrounding it. As a result, viewers are able to explore the intricacies of a world that feels intentionally small, but receive almost no insight into the world beyond. This likely reflects a purposeful narrative choice, echoing Hen’s sense of limitation, but unfortunately also leaves viewers with questions about the way Hen and Junior’s story fits into the broader context of society.

The film’s life rafts are its breath-taking visuals and talented cast, who are able to evoke a strong emotional connection to the characters even amid a failing plot. And although the conclusion is likely to leave viewers with more questions than answers, the film’s strength lies in the underlying moral dilemmas it probes, which will likely stay with viewers long after the mediocre dialogue and unimaginative twists have faded from memory.

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