Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer’s God’s Creatures is a poignantly nuanced film about repercussions, guilt and the unforgiving nature of a harsh life by the sea.
People, much like the sea, have murky depths. A calm surface can hide a myriad of secrets and dangers. And the sea is as much a character in Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer’s God’s Creatures as anyone, with the opening shot – of the camera disorientated under water with a deceptively calm surface – acting as a metaphor for a lot of the film’s emotional turmoil. It’s a film that’s about repercussions, guilt, anger and denial. It’s quiet and sombre, bordering purposefully on gloomy, and keeps a lot of its secrets tucked away in a manner that’s almost to the detriment of the emotional payoff.
Aileen (Emily Watson) lives a simple life in a remote Irish fishing village as the supervisor of the seafood factory, sharing cigarette breaks and gossip of the rural town variety in the drizzle with her colleagues. At the wake of a drowned young fisherman, Aileen is astonished when her son Brian (Paul Mescal) unexpectedly arrives home from Australia. Ostensibly there to revive their failing oyster farm, he’s very tight-lipped about his time away and reasons for returning. But Aileen is delighted to him back regardless. And so, when her young co-worker Sarah (Aisling Franciosi) levels a sexual assault allegation against Brian, Aileen makes a decision out of blind loyalty with repercussions that ripple throughout the entire community.
God’s Creatures is a film about guilt. Aileen does what she does in fear of losing her son – again – and spends the rest of the film quietly stewing in the guilt of that. Watson is terrific in the role: stoic, nuanced and observant of far more than she lets on. Her desperation for penance is subtle but really present as she moves throughout the film, almost haunted by what she’s done in defence of a son who is quite clearly her favourite, much to the chagrin of her daughter Erin (Toni O’Rourke). She doesn’t say much, but Watson imbues every morsel of the performance with such quiet intensity that she doesn’t need to.
Her immediate defence of Brian is very deftly handled and she isn’t the film’s villain. She exists in the grey, because that’s reality. Mescal’s Brian is seemingly a jovial lad, keen to work and enjoys a pint and a dance or two at the pub of an evening. But there’s something ever so slightly off about him almost immediately. He arrives back with nary a warning, nor a reason, and he hadn’t kept in touch at all whilst he was away. His presence sets his dad (Declan Conlan) on edge and there’s clearly old resentment festering between the two of them. There’s a darkness in Brian, a menace lurking underneath the charm that’s unsettling, and Aileen’s instinctual protectiveness does not mean she is blind to it.
Mescal is in shadow for a lot of the film, a stylish visual touch from cinematographer Chayse Irvin that emphases the ambiguity of his character. He’s meant to unnerve us, and the film deliberately doesn’t offer much in the way of answers about him because it is ultimately about more than that. It’s a film that’s keen to explore the murkiness of humanity, the way loyalty can be detrimental and how a tight-knit community can ostracise those who rock the boat. The majority of the film is doused in darkness, echoing the subject matter and the bleak realities of life in this place.
The final shot is perhaps the sunniest we ever see the stunning but unforgiving landscape, as the camera lingers on Sarah’s profile as she drives away. It’s an emotional and beautifully acted moment from Franciosi, but is tarnished somewhat by perhaps the film’s main flaw. Because while it is poignant and powerful, it could be more so, had Sarah not been side-lined for a lot of the film. It feels as though the directors, and scriptwriter Shane Crowley, are making commentary on the tendency to not believe women in situations of sexual assault.
But because so much of the film is about the sombre aftermath of Aileen’s experience, leaving out much of Sarah’s takes away from the gut punch that the final scenes deliver. However, do not misconstrue that statement as saying the act itself should have been visualised, because it absolutely need not be. It’s simply the fact that shifting the focus so suddenly from Aileen to Sarah unbalances a lot of the emotional groundwork the film has built so far.
But aside from that narrative quibble, Davis and Holmer have crafted something that feels special. It’s reminiscent more of a horror than an emotional character drama, with terrific sound design that’s suitably tense, atmospheric and unsettling. There is a moment when Sarah’s hauntingly beautiful and melancholic singing is isolated, layered over Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ score that rumbles like thunder, as the camera lingers on Aileen’s conflicted face and the heavens open to douse the mournful moment in rain. It is tremendously effective. And the overlapping conversations and moments where characters speak so fast and softly that it’s almost a mumble feels really authentic, because that’s how people speak when they’re comfortable and familiar with one another.
It all coalesces into something that’s really tight-knit and complex, much like the rural communities themselves. God’s Creatures is a film that has its young men avoid learning to swim lest they have to save another, and yet purposefully head out into the unpredictable water every day. It’s a film about the ripples a decision borne out of love and fear can have on everything around it, anchored by three nuanced, emotional and beguiling performances. Equal commitment to those on either side of the decision might have elevated the film a little more, but it is still something that lingers long after the credits roll.
God’s Creatures had its UK Premiere at the 2023 Glasgow Film Festival on March 2-3, 2022. Read our reviews from the Glasgow Film Festival!