Producers: Kerry Kohansky-Roberts, Garth Davis, Emile Sherman and Iain Canning Director: Garth Davis Screenplay: Iain Reid and Garth Davis Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Paul Mescal and Aaron Pierre Distributor: Amazon MGM Studios
When even two actors as fine as Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal can’t breathe life into a script, something is definitely wrong with it. Heaven knows they expend enormous amounts of energy as Henrietta and Junior, a troubled couple living on a parched farm somewhere in the nearly-deserted American Midwest in 2065. The earth has been devastated by global warming, and they’re trying to survive on what they earn working at jobs off the land—Junior on an assembly-line in a drab chicken-processing plant, and Hen as a waitress at a truck-stop diner. Their relationship has grown increasingly testy.
It’s made more so when they get an unexpected visitor—Terrance (Aaron Pierre), the representative from one of the all-powerful corporations engaged in establishing space stations where humans will live in the future. As part of the process of experimenting with how such stations will operate, Junior has somehow been selected as a possible member of an upcoming group of inhabitants for a two-year trial run—an offer, it seems, that can’t be refused. But to secure the position, he’ll have to undergo vetting, a two-year process of scrutiny.
Precisely what happens in the first year isn’t made clear, but at the beginning of the second Terrance shows up to announce that he’ll now be staying, watching and interrogating them. Junior is especially irritated by the process, especially since it appears that nearby farms—abandoned, one supposes—are being torched and workers replaced with AI replicants. He’s even more upset when Terrance announces that when he’s taken off for his two-year stint on the station, Hen won’t be accompanying him; but she won’t be left alone—an AI version of him will take up residence to keep her company.
Matters seem to be spiraling out of control when the plot introduces a major turn that may surprise, but is so ineptly staged that it proves bewildering, not only as it occurs but as you try to figure it out afterward. In narrative terms, “Foe” vacillates between overwrought melodramatics and enigmatic bafflement.
Perhaps Iain Reid’s 2018 novel, from which he’s fashioned the screenplay with director Garth Davis, had merit, but this big-screen adaptation proves a murky, pretentious bore, like a script for “The Twilight Zone” that Rod Serling would have tossed into the wastebasket. A good deal of effort has been expended to instill some depth to the thing—certainly Ronan and Mescal act up a storm as the troubled couple, and Pierre brings a silkily smooth tone of malevolence to their visitor. Technically, too, “Foe” shows some imagination. The Australian locations are creepily desolate, Patrice Vermette’s production design and Alice Babidge’s costumes add to the sense of misery, and so does the score by Oliver Coates, Park Jiha and Agnes Obel.
But as the film grinds on, paced with an air of grim solemnity by Davis and editor Peter Sciberras, it grows more and more opaque and abstruse. It’s possible that a second or third viewing would allow one to puzzle out how the parts fit together and what they’re intended to mean, but the level of tedium that repeated viewings would entail outweighs any hope of enlightenment.
It’s with a feeling of despondency that you leave a film like “Foe.” It’s obviously intended to frame provocative questions in a way that will stimulate mature audiences, and the level of expertise that’s been lavished on it, both in front of the camera and behind it, is substantial. But that merely makes its abject failure all the more dispiriting.