An opening shot of roiling underwater bubbles breaking through to the surface of the sea is a visual analogy for the unspoken truths going back generations in an Irish fishing village. Aileen O'Hara (Emily Watson) is beside herself with joy when her son Brian (Paul Mescal, "The Lost Daughter") returns home unexpectedly after seven years in Australia, but when she lies to give him an alibi when he’s charged with sexual assault, the entire social fabric of the village begins to unravel in “God’s Creatures.”
Laura's Review: B+
From that opening scene, directors Saela Davis & Anna Rose Holmer ("The Fits") establish a brooding sense of unease. Writer Shane Crowley (from a story by himself and Fodhla Cronin O'Reilly) contributes to the dark undercurrent, a group of woman joking during a smoke break outside the seafood processing plant where they work suddenly realizing the ambulance in the distance has come to retrieve the body of one of their own, the drowned fisherman husband of Mary Fitz (Marion O'Dwyer). It is notable that it is at the local pub gathering after this man’s funeral that Brian reemerges, he and his mother’s beaming, rapturous embrace in a sea of black mourning uncomfortably out of place.
Brian is quite ambiguous about why he left Australia but when his father, Con (Declan Conlon, "Calvary"), demands to know his plans, he confidently states that he intends to restart the family business, Paddy’s Oysters. A family trip out to its beds highlights years of neglect, Brian’s parents noting it will take a full year of hard work to become profitable and that Brian will need to earn a living in the meantime. At the end of a work shift, Aileen, a supervisor, steals a number of oyster bags for her son’s project, but as she’s wheeling them out, runs into Sarah Murphy (Aisling Franciosi, "The Nightingale"). The younger woman pretends not to notice. Aileen cannot help but notice that Brian is earning money illegally by poaching, but after quietly cautioning him, keeps her mouth shut.
Character detail slowly builds a story of a town whose men have oppressed and abused its women for generations. We see Aileen slapped by her incapacitated father-in-law, Paddy O'Hara (Lalor Roddy, "The Devil's Doorway"), as she tends to him in his wheelchair. Her single daughter Erin (Toni O'Rourke) has been left with an infant by its irresponsible father. Sarah is publicly abused by Francie (Brendan McCormack) when she doesn’t wish to leave the pub. And after giving false testimony, Aileen will hear pub owner Dan Neill (Enda Oates) and the other men sitting with her son all assure him that their loyalty lies with him, despite what they may have seen the night in question. When Aileen finally goes to speak with Sarah, the woman in question, Sarah too, will tell a tale of a broken-hearted mother who lived a miserable life to leave a house to a daughter who now calls it haunted by a drunken father and his sobbing wife.
Watson ignites a powerful slow burn as she does a literal and figurative dance with Mescal, their initial reunion portrayed more like lovers than mother and son. Without calling attention to herself through raised voice or exaggerated movement, the actress nonetheless conveys a maelstrom of emotions below the surface. The strapping and good-looking Mescal suggests something not quite right, surface cheer with a serving of untrustworthiness. When she’s not casting accusatory looks at Aileen, “The Nightingale’s” Franciosi is given not one, but two chances to sing, a ballad in the pub, a hymn at a seashore gathering. O'Dwyer aids immeasurably providing character to the female community. If there is a weak note with the film, it is with the unknowable Con.
“Blonde” cinematographer Chayse Irvin uses a cool palette of blues and grays befitting the location, his breathtaking establishing shots featuring long stretches of road snaking through vibrant green hills or the sight of a harbor town twinkling at night. “The Fits” Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans compose with instruments like fiddles and drums, lending the film a foreboding Irish air while avoiding cliché.
With “God’s Creatures,” Davis and Holmer have painted a picture of generational pain in one tight knit community exposed by one woman’s lie.
Robin's Review: B-
In a small Irish fishing village, another fisherman’s death is being mourned. This is the set for the return of Brian (Paul Mescal), the prodigal son of Aileen O’Hara (Emily Watson). To her, he can do no wrong but she harbors his secret which could ostracize her from the towns’ folk in “God’s Creatures.”
I have to say, when Brian arrives home to the affectionate embrace of Aileen, I thought they were a couple. Quickly, though, I learned that he is her favored son who has a terrible secret that could ruin his mother. Their early “affection,” though, is really creepy, making me think incest. Fortunately, that is not the case though it colored my attitude for a while watching “God’s Creatures.”
Co-directors Saela Davis and Anna Rose Hunter bring us into the heart of the fishing village where oysters are a main commodity – you get a bit of a lesson on oyster farming during the course of the story. There is believability to the community, making me feeling like I am living with real people in a real place.
Emily Watson, aside from my creepy feeling early on, does a fine job in giving Aileen depth and substance. Brian, though, is such a jerk (and we learn why) that I wondered how his mom could overlook his foibles. Then, I realized, “she’s his mom!” and I understand how she could. Aileen’s change of heart toward her son gets a good arc as she, finally, realizes just what he is. In the end, it is Watson’s movie.
A24 opens "God's Creatures" in select theaters and on VOD on 9/30/22.