- Directed by Garth Davis
- Written by Iain Reid and Garth Davis, based on the novel by Iain Reid
- Starring Saoirse Ronan, Paul Mescal and Aaron Pierre
- Classification N/A; 110 minutes
- Opens in select theatres Oct. 13, including TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto
“You are going to be written about for years and years,” one character says to another late in Foe, a haunting new relationship drama dressed up in the guise of a dystopian sci-fi guessing game. That promise, or perhaps threat, rings true for not only the three players at the centre of the high-concept story, but also much of the film itself. There is an unshakable and electric hum to Foe that ensures director Garth Davis’s work will stay with audiences attuned to its distinct frequency for days, months, perhaps ages.
Based on Canadian novelist Iain Reid’s 2018 bestseller – with the author adapting his own work alongside Davis (the Australian filmmaker best known for the 2016 Dev Patel tear-jerker Lion) – Foe opens a few decades into the future. The Earth has given up the ghost, with the world suffering from severe drought. Stubbornly holding out at their farm somewhere in the American Midwest are Junior (Paul Mescal) and Henrietta (Saoirse Ronan), a married couple who spend their days toiling in dead-end jobs (him at a nightmarish chicken-processing factory, her at a dusty diner) and their nights alternating between giving each other the cold shoulder and the heated embrace.
This uneasy domesticity is interrupted early in the film by the arrival of a slick stranger named Terrance (Aaron Pierre), who says he works for a corporation – or maybe it’s the government, he seems to lose track – that is sending people to live on a massive space station orbiting the planet, where humanity will begin anew. Junior, he shares, has been randomly selected to ship out. And it’s not exactly a voluntary mission.
This development causes obvious tension between husband and wife, but there is a bonus of sorts that comes with the assignment: To ensure Henrietta won’t be lonely, she’ll be provided with a lifelike robot double of Junior until he returns. To prepare for the switch, Terrance will bunk down with the couple for a few weeks to study Junior – wedging a third wheel into an already rickety relationship.
That premise might sound like an episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror – particularly the sixth-season instalment Beyond the Sea – but it’s merely a case of accidental timing (Reid’s novel was published five long years before that Black Mirror tale aired) as well as being a red herring. The future-tech trappings of Foe serve a knottier, and sometimes erotically charged, study of a relationship threatening to dissolve into dust.
Although Ronan handles her American accent better than fellow Irelander Mescal, the two impossibly beautiful performers dig into their roles with quiet, determined ferocity. The pair generate instant chemistry even – especially – when they are at odds with one another. And Davis knows how to push the two to spaces both smouldering and uncomfortable, the stars sinking into moods and anxieties like second skins. The director also conveniently uses this future world’s lack of air conditioning to speckle his leads with layers of sweat, the palpable stickiness of their bodies underlining their passions and frustrations.
Pierre, meanwhile, drops his second massive charisma bomb of the year after his hulking performance in Clement Virgo’s Brother. Terrance is the kind of tricky agent of change/plot accelerator that could slip into the background as a mere exposition-delivery service. Yet the British actor gives him a knowing sense of steely confidence that slowly reveals shades of mischief.
As in Reid’s debut novel, 2016′s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, there is a narrative-altering twist in Foe that hides in plain sight. But the film would seem to work no matter the viewer’s foreknowledge. As a reader aware of the pivot, I still found no small amount of pleasure in watching Davis and Reid snap the puzzle pieces together until the entire picture revealed itself.
Not that there aren’t a few elements that feel unnecessarily tacked on in the transition from page to screen: one moment at the very beginning (onscreen text explaining the state of the world, which is conveyed well enough in background moments throughout) and another at the very end (a single shot that wipes out a hint of narrative ambiguity, which any half-careful viewer would’ve figured out regardless). Both decisions smell faintly of studio-note meddling. But neither is remotely fatal, merely annoying reminders that not every director can get away with, say, Charlie Kaufman levels of independence.
Speaking of Kaufman: That director took far more narrative liberties and conceptual swerves in his wonderfully surreal 2020 adaptation of I’m Thinking of Ending Things than Davis does here with Foe. Yet the two films are as much in conversation with the other as Reid’s own novels are.
Both films take polar-opposite approaches – Davis staying relatively grounded, Kaufman shooting off into the alternate-reality stratosphere – to contemplate the same questions: How well can you ever know the person you claim to love the most? And how well can you ever know yourself?
Foe doesn’t pretend to have the answers any more than I’m Thinking of Ending Things. But both adaptations will leave you thinking. Maybe, even, for years and years.