It’s 2065 in The Midwest. The climate crisis has ravaged the planet with floods, fires, and a slew of natural disasters. A piece of the United States known for its vast, lush farmland is now barren and desolate. In this not-so-distant future, AI Human Substitutes are beginning to replace human labor in the most devastated areas of the Earth. On its surface, this outcome feels like a plausible and dangerous reality, especially as technology advances and our planet continues to burn. Yet, in Garth Davis’ futuristic marriage drama, Foe, this premise fails to induce anxiety and fear and simply causes frustration for the audience as its unfocused narrative drags on.
Adapted from Iain Reid’s (I’m Thinking of Ending Things) novel of the same name, Foe follows Junior (Paul Mescal) and Henrietta, AKA Hen (Saoirse Ronan), the only people in the Midwest for miles. When we first meet Hen, she’s weeping in the shower and declares via voiceover, “he doesn’t see me anymore.” The man she’s referring to is her difficult husband, Junior. They sleep in separate rooms, fight constantly, and display a palpable disdain for each other. Whatever spark ignited their relationship is lost. Everything changes when, one night, two mysterious, blinding headlights shine through the farmhouse’s windows. A charming stranger named Terrance (Aaron Pierre) arrives with a complex, intriguing proposal. Terrance is from OuterMore, a company designing an installation in space with the hopes of eventually moving people off of planet Earth. As part of their corporate climate strategy, Terrance tells Junior that he was selected from a lottery and will participate in the first wave of temporary off-Earth habitation. Like many smooth corporate shills, Terrance acts like he has altruistic motivations–the planet is uninhabitable, and they need to test a new environment “for our children’s children.” Hen, however, wasn’t selected for the lottery and will need to be left behind. Terrance ensures the couple that Hen’s well-being matters and that she will have company in the form of a Replacement who will look and behave exactly like Junior. It’s a fascinating idea that introduces the concept of the temptation of artificial intelligence and causes the audience to wonder if maybe Hen would be better off if her husband left her behind with a Replacement.
Successful science-fiction films often use their most creative scientific inventions as a Trojan Horse, to tell stories about timely themes like corporate power, dangerous technological advancements, and complicated marriage plots. It’s clear that’s what Foe tries to achieve, but unfortunately, the rules of the film’s world are unclear, making it difficult to latch onto the additional themes addressed. Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély (Son of Saul) and production designer Patrice Vermette (Dune) create a dusty, beautiful world that calls to mind Dorothea Lange’s photographs of The Great Depression. Junior and Hen’s home doesn’t seem to have advancements post-1950, let alone 2065. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to the advanced factory where Junior works, the beige, Mad Men-inspired restaurant where Hen works as a waitress, and Terrance’s futuristic car. Still, it’s unclear why this couple is seemingly stuck in a time long before the planet became a wasteland. Sometimes, the science-fiction aspects of Foe feel like an afterthought to the relationship between Junior and Hen.
After Terrance leaves and promises to return to prepare Junior for his departure, co-writers Davis and Reid detail the complexities of Junior and Hen’s seven-year marriage. Junior is a version of Hud from the future, a self-centered, violent man of the earth who inherited the family farm where he and Hen still reside. A water shortage is mentioned, yet Pabst Brewing Company is seemingly immune as Junior always has a bottle of PBR in hand. Mescal, one of the most exciting actors of his generation, feels like a natural choice for the role of Junior. He is an actor unafraid of vulnerability and, frankly, a dream for a director like Davis, trying to make a riff on a John Cassavetes film. However, the film’s broad strokes and unintentionally humorous dialogue (“We could lose the farm!”) cause Mescal to overact. It ultimately feels like a dress rehearsal for his triumphant West End turn as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. By contrast, Hen sometimes feels like a stereotypical suffering wife, one of the worst tropes in marriage dramas. She keeps her piano in the basement to appease Junior, maintains a farm that belongs to his family, and bears the brunt of his volatility. Ronan fares best with the material, though. Her openness and ability to inhabit any time period allow her to exist in this oddly drawn world believably and dig into Hen’s quiet suffering and simmering rage.
It’s a shame that the script can’t manage the world-building and character development, as Mescal and Ronan are so well-suited to tackle a thorny marriage drama. The explosive moments of Junior and Hen’s marriage feel inspired by the works of Cassavetes and, most recently, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. Still, they are difficult to take seriously because the film provides few opportunities for the audience to know and understand these characters and their motivations. As they wait for Junior’s impending mission, Davis and Reid incorporate moments of levity (and plenty of sex) to show that it may be possible for Junior and Hen to remember why they fell in love in the first place and rediscover each other. It’s worth noting that it feels almost comical that these two beautiful people somehow found each other despite a sharp decrease in population. One year later, when their relationship finally grows stronger, Terrance returns and upends their lives again. Junior is to leave in just a few weeks, and his world suddenly escalates and becomes more complicated.
As the film unfolds, Davis and Reid incorporate several symbols and breadcrumbs for the audience to follow, especially concerning Junior’s behavior. These clues and parallel images, such as insects, rain, and interview dialogue, create a mind-bending world, but the film’s tiresome nature makes them somewhat impossible to follow. Even though Reid, the source material’s author, co-wrote the script, the film fails as a successful adaptation. Reid’s novels are rich and beguiling page-turners, and they need a director with an unflinching hand guiding the vision. The tricky, layered structure of the story and the impending reveal of the truth are designed to misguide the audience, but the film’s slow, inert stretches halt any momentum in the narrative. By the time the truth is revealed, the on-the-nose, earnest dialogue makes what should be a moving moment quite laughable.
Earlier in the film, when things seem to be going well for Junior and Hen, he abruptly arrives at her work and friskily tries to snatch her away for the rest of the day. Hen hesitates, and Junior replies, “None of this matters.” As the film struggles to wrap itself up, beginnings and endings blur, and time feels irrelevant. The symbols and threads don’t feel like they amount to anything substantial onscreen. What’s real? What does any of this mean? Sadly, “none of this matters” feels like a natural response.
This review is from the 2023 New York Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release Foe in theaters on October 6.