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  • Reviewed at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.

Death is a bookend in God’s Creatures. What opens this disquieting tale of troubling decisions in a hardscrabble, rain-weathered Irish coastal village is the death of local oyster farmer, Mark, who drowns as the fateful tide comes in. Another tragedy will go on to close the film, reflecting the dangerous cycles of life in this ghostly part of the world. The fishermen here never learn how to swim, a morbid local tradition, so that they’re never expected to save anyone else who may have the misfortune of succumbing to the water.

Co-directors Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer (who previously worked together on Holmer’s directorial debut The Fits) are adept at building a strong sense of atmosphere in what is ostensibly a fairly traditional family drama. The person who does feel the need to save others, most notably her son, is Aileen (Emily Watson), an employee at the village factory where all of the caught fish are taken to be gutted, cleaned and prepared. Her days are routine and challenging—never enough money to be had, never enough work to offer others. At home, she swoons over her baby grandson and cares for her ailing brother-in-law Paddy. The return of son Brian (Paul Mescal) after an ambiguous absence in Australia causes a critical rupture. He brings with him his lingering resentment for his father and his penchant for the machismo that pervades the place he once left behind.

So when Aileen’s young colleague Sarah (Aisling Franciosi) misses a few shifts after a night in the town bar, a night Aileen knows Brian also spent in that bar, the ripples of her son’s return begin to be felt most forcefully. Soon, a policeman comes calling for Brian, who has been accused of rape. With Aileen’s subsequent lie—that her son was at home with her—comes Brian’s absolution and Sarah’s alienation. Mescal combines his known boyish charm with a stoicism here that hardens his performance to effectively portray the brutality of masculinity to which Brian is accustomed, while Watson progressively softens, her lined face and loose hair an expression of exhaustion and emptiness. She is a woman fighting against the laws of nature in this backwards place; Davis and Holmer only really scratch the surface of the more illuminating clash going on here between the old ways and new, but it’s still interesting territory.

What begins as a beguiling portrait of a struggling community, coloured by the coldness and coarseness of the environment’s textures, starts to drift as the narrative unfolds. Davis and Holmer’s focal point starts to lose coherence: is it Aileen’s motherly instincts at the heart of this story, Brian’s violence and ignorance, or the recovery of Sarah? Without a clear directorial decision, each strand of the plot weakens and character motivations become muddled. By the end, as Aileen seeks her own salvation for her crimes, her final act lacks the emotional build-up needed to stick the landing.

Still, the melancholy tension that rises throughout gives the film a darkness and intrigue that are well-sustained. As a gloomy small-town drama, God’s Creatures is not breaking new ground, nor is it the most narratively coherent or inventive, but Davis and Holmer’s knack for mood and tone, coupled with the central performances, help lift this into something more engaging.