Foe, the beautifully shot yet scattered lo-fi sci-fi mystery thriller starring Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal, is not a good movie. However, it is an interesting one. In terms of how it attempts to adapt Iain Reed’s novel of the same name, there are moments where it is withholding in a way that is hard to square with the knowledge of what is coming. At the same time, it calls attention to certain details so obviously that it feels like it is fighting against itself. On the one hand is an attempt at creating a subtle deconstruction of a marriage that asks questions about what it means to be with someone in a world neither of you could have expected. On the other is a film that is clumsy at exploring this and nervous about not spelling everything out. For those who haven’t read the book, it may play better not knowing how this story can be done well. For those who have, any investment to be had in some of the film’s briefly interesting alterations will likely give way to frustration at the rest of it.
The basics of the movie that can be discussed are that it centers on a husband and wife living on a remote American farm in a future where the existential threat of climate change continues to upend life as we know it. Junior (Mescal) is a frequently detached man who can be often found with a beer in hand while Hen (Ronan) is more focused on the future and has aspirations beyond their small corner of the world. This gets brought even more into focus when the mysterious Terrance (Aaron Pierre) shows up at their door late one night. Junior’s first instinct is to go grab a gun only for Hen to talk him down and let the stranger inside. It is then that Terrance explains how he is there to tell them that they have been selected. Without giving them a choice, Junior will be sent to work in a large space station and Hen will stay here. However, they will create a robotic replicant of him to take his place so that she does not get lonely in his absence. In order to do this, they will need to study all aspects of their lives so as to make the mimicry so accurate that it would convince even themselves of the ruse.
Anything else beyond that is where one must be cautious so as to not tip off any details about what is actually happening. Suffice it to say, there is a fundamental question hanging over everything that the book makes clear is less about a shocking twist than it is what it reveals about the characters. It is then a tough balancing act for writer-director Garth Davis to recapture this while also not creating what is essentially a retread for those already in the know. As he has said in interviews, he set out to make what is essentially two movies in one. Unfortunately, while one is slightly better than the other, this is damning with faint praise.
There are some compelling moments where the three stars, who all are the only people we come to know in the entire film, really bounce off each other quite well. Mescal brings an authentic woundedness that will be familiar to anyone who has seen Charlotte Wells’ astounding Aftersun, but he crosses that with a more unsettling sense of anger here. Junior seems afraid of the world and is grappling with how he wants to live in it. Ronan is riveting as Hen goes through a whole complicated range of emotions that she can’t fully speak aloud to him. Pierre also really pushes things into interesting territory, playing his character as an often seemingly caring though potentially cruel force in the home. The pieces are all there to make something great, but the way they are all brought together ensures it nearly comes apart.
There is one moment towards the end where a climactic scene makes you sit up and take notice of what this film could have been. Both Ronan and Mescal, even when they become separated, are each outstanding performers. The way this scene is constructed, with everything now out in the open for both of them, creates a punch to the gut that leaves you reeling for a good while. That it comes as part of the film laying out a whole lot of exposition is unfortunate as it dulls the potency it should have. Not to compare things to the book too much, but the way that subsequently brought us to the end was much more impactful.
This film adaptation carries on for far too long with far too much unnecessary hammering home of everything it had been doing. It ultimately robs the story of the existential terrors it had tapped into just moments prior that came from the actors all giving everything they had. Rather than add anything to their work, it just betrays a lack of confidence in letting the story breathe. Instead, it feels suffocatingly superficial in how it spells everything out when it absolutely didn’t need to. The simple showstopping moments of the far superior source material are then executed so poorly that you just wish you were reading that instead.
In the end, this is what comes to define the experience of Foe. There are plenty of promising elements to be found in said source material, but it becomes dragged down by a banal excess that can’t be overlooked. In keeping with the central theme of the film itself, you don’t want to entirely abandon it just because there is so much that is broken and needs to be fixed. The trouble is that it doesn’t have the verve or the patience to rebuild something of its own.
Foe is in theaters now. Click here for showtimes near you.