Foe: Paul Mescal and Saoirse Ronan bring life to this cautionary cloning tale

Though the premise and plotting of this sci-fi drama are questionable in places, the nuanced, lived-in lead performances keep things compelling.

18 October 2023

By Sam Davies

Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal as Henrietta and Junior in Foe (2023)
Sight and Sound

Isolated clapboard farmhouses in the dustbowl Midwest suggest certain things cinematically: slow-burn, unspoken family tensions; abduction by flying saucer; dust-storms whisking you to other, magical worlds. At different times Garth Davis’s Foe evokes them all, framing its science-fiction fable about identity, AI and cloning in widescreen pioneer vistas, but retaining all the interpersonal claustrophobia of recent revisionist westerns like Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog (2021).

As the film opens, a car prowls down a dark lane and stops with a farmhouse in its headlights. Its passenger, Terrance (Aaron Pierre), is the storm, arriving at Junior and Hen’s farm to whisk Junior off-world. What he offers – and the offer cannot, it turns out, be refused – is pioneering, heroic construction work in space, building humanity an escape route from a planet in terminal ecological decline. To sweeten the deal, Terrance’s corporation can offer a clone of Junior as an emotional prop for Henrietta, his wife.

All is not entirely well with Junior (Paul Mescal) and Henrietta (Saoirse Ronan) to begin with, and the indecency lurking in the details of this proposal knocks their marriage that little bit more off-kilter. Henrietta wants to grow rather than let things fall apart, but may also want a different life: Junior even suspects she volunteered him for the whole scheme. When Terrance returns to run Junior through a series of increasingly uncomfortable psychometric tests – apparently straight from the same textbook as the Voight-Kampff questionnaire in Blade Runner (1982) – the dynamic becomes steadily more fraught.

The urbane Terrance, with his imperturbable English accent, bottles of wine and knowledge of Jacqueline du Pré recordings, is an intruder, employer, analyst, and also a glimpse for Hen – who plays a piano that Junior has banished to the farmhouse basement – of a world beyond her drab locale.

Aaron Pierre as Terrance in Foe (2023)

Adapted from Iain Reid’s novel by Davis and Reid (who previously wrote Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, 2020), Foe achieves a subtle, pervasive sense of unreality – or unreliable reality – which echoes the theme of copying, cloning and authenticity. Junior and Henrietta live in a barren dystopia as devoid of context or connection as of moisture and vegetation: family and friends are never mentioned, nor the possibility of children of their own.

They seemingly live slightly out of time, in a 19th-century farmstead with barely a sign of 2023 – let alone 2065 – technology. They sleep on wrought-iron bed frames, and own a turntable, but not a computer or TV. Davis uses CGI judiciously to add detail rather than entire environments – such as long shots of the gigantic silo-like battery chicken facility where Junior works. Otherwise Davis and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély lean towards Days of Heaven-style wide shots of huge open skies and scrubland stretching to the horizon.

But Foe is dogged by unrealities that jam the logic of its plot. You wonder why Hen needs a spare Junior at all if he’s returning in a year or two – and what exactly she thinks will happen when he does and meets his doppelganger, like a Martin Guerre back from orbit? Foe makes only glancing use of one of the easiest uncanny effects cinema can offer, the meeting of original and copy, which drove a clutch of films a decade ago (Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, Richard Ayoade’s The Double, both 2013). Wouldn’t Terrance’s shadowy public corporation be better off sending disposable clones to do the heavy lifting in outer space, rather than doing the messy work of emotional labour on Earth? Hen’s wish to escape the cultural and emotional desert she is stranded in makes sense – the fact that it is the reluctant Junior who hits escape velocity is a nicely dramatic discord. But it is framed oddly as an urge to travel a world which we are frequently reminded is dead or dying.

It’s to Ronan and Mescal’s credit that the film is not overwhelmed by these flaws – or at any rate, interrogation is postponed until the credits have rolled. Both are able to let all the various nuances of emotion in a scene or situation flicker across their faces within the space of a line, and they can switch a mutual spark on and off at will, to match the uncertain voltage of Junior and Hen’s marriage. And both performances only become more impressive after a late plot reveal that revises their characters for the audience yet somehow stays true to their interpretations.

► Foe was screening at the 2023 London Film Festival; it arrives in UK cinemas on 20 October.

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