When Brian O’Hara (Paul Mescal) returns to his hometown early in God’s Creatures, he’s greeted as if he’s been lost at sea, perhaps presumed dead. That’s not the case; from the sound of it, he’s been bumming around Australia in a ramshackle attempt to make something, anything, of himself, clearly nursing some long-held familial grudges. Still, it’s easy to see why his mother Aileen (Emily Watson) treats him like a lonely sailor, miraculously rescued from shipwreck: She lives in a fishing village off the coast of Ireland, where, from a certain direction, the outside world just looks like the vast, unknowable ocean.
It also doesn’t necessarily look like the sort of place where a guy like Brian would be returning in triumph, but Aileen, so glad to have her son back within reach, ignores this. And why wouldn’t she? She’s just been to a local funeral for a friend’s son, around Brian’s age, and when Brian returns home promising to restart the family’s oyster-fishing business, it feels like a hopeful renewal in the face of looming death. Brian’s sister Erin (Toni O’Rourke) and his father Con (Declan Conlon), however, aren’t quite as enthusiastic about his prodigal-son peacocking, and when Erin’s childhood friend (and Aileen’s fish-packing plant coworker) Sarah (Aisling Franciosi) accuses Brian of a major crime, family and community tensions rise. It’s easy to imagine this material fueling a play of schematic seriousness, one that—like this movie—avoids actually depicting what Sarah is accusing Brian of doing, in favor of a sociological examination of the aftermath.
That’s part of God’s Creatures, but the filmmaking has such formal rigor that there’s no mistaking it for theater. Directors Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer previously made the beguiling drama The Fits, which Holmer directed and Davis edited, from Davis’s story. Here, they share the directing credit, working with Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly, whose experiences in an Irish fishing village, informed the story, which screenwriter Shane Crowley fleshed out into a full feature. God’s Creatures doesn’t have quite the same enchanting, unnerving mystery of The Fits, where a girls’ dance troupe begins to suffer unexplained seizures. The hardscrabble working-class details here inevitably feel a bit more familiar, whether from American kitchen-sink indies or Irish plays. But befitting their previous, dance-heavy collaboration, Davis and Holmer have a knack for tracing their characters’ movements, whether through wide, overhead shots of the packing-plant floor, or observing the bustle of activity around a still, grieving woman. The sound design, catching snatches of local conversation amidst a discomfiting musical score, contributes to a foreboding atmosphere.
The foreboding doesn’t stop with Brian’s eventual transgression; the filmmakers are attuned to how local-boy camaraderie in the face of tragedy can be just as chilling as the tragedy itself. Aileen wants desperately to believe her son’s protestations of innocence, and tries to politely negotiate the community discomfort festering in front of her—moreso than Erin, who is understandably incensed—while doubt and disappointment nag at her. A few brief moments with Brian’s ailing grandfather have hints of past violence, never elaborated upon, part of the movie’s evocative background shading. The movie is less about the ambiguities of Brian’s case—which inspires only a single short courtroom scene, the decisive outcome of which only serves to foment audience skepticism about Brian—and more about Aileen’s relief at her son’s return curdling into horror as she realizes what he’s returning to.
Watson, as is her custom, does extraordinary work as Aileen, able to convey major shifts in her thoughts and feelings about her son while seldom actually giving voice to them. Just by virtue of paying attention to her low-key expressiveness, the filmmakers almost allow Watson to overshadow the other performers, especially Franciosi and O’Rourke as women who are, to whatever degree, somewhat less accepting of the town’s traditions. (Mescal’s Brian chafes at this too, for entirely more superficial reasons, as he complains about events that involve “showing face just for the sake of it.”) The movie’s extended closing shot attempts to reframe the story slightly, letting the O’Hara family drift out of view in a way that’s thought-provoking (and lovely to sink into), but perhaps not entirely successful based on how much screentime they’re afforded beforehand. The change-up both recalls the unpredictability of The Fits and the ways that God’s Creatures otherwise embodies some of that classical austere-indie inevitability. Much of the time, however, Holmer, Davis and Watson make some familiar dynamics feel as bracing as the coastal wind.
Director: Saela Davis, Anna Rose Holmer
Writer: Shane Crowley, Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly
Starring: Emily Watson, Paul Mescal, Aisling Franciosi, Toni O’Rourke, Declan Conlon
Release Date: September 30, 2022
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.