Foe

M, 110 Minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Late into the evening, a car travels through arid, spectral landscape before stopping outside an isolated farmhouse. The young couple inside do not seem to be expecting anyone at such a late hour, but soon it isn’t quite clear who between them knows quite what. A sense of alarm is also triggered when the man reaches for his empty shotgun. If he’d had the ammunition, it might have taken the film in an entirely different direction.

As the couple, Hen/Henrietta and Junior (Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal), learn from their late-night visitor what’s in store, some more familiar tropes of disempowerment will make it clear that the pair have little say in their future. The next phase of transition and the first wave of temporary resettlement is underway.

Terrance (Aaron Pierre) a rep from OuterMore, is a tall, imposing presence, genial while clearly in control. We are the government, he says. Who or what can confirm this? How would they know?

I loved the atmosphere of a desolate somewhere in the near future that is so thoroughly established from the opening scenes by the creative team in this new film from director Garth Davis (Lion). Foe, an unsettling combination of science-fiction, horror and intimate relationship drama, takes place on our dying planet somewhere in the American Midwest in 2065.

In a desolate somewhere in the near future, transition and temporary resettlement is already underway

It was filmed in Australia, among dead river redgums in the Winton Wetlands of eastern Victoria and South Australia, by Hungarian DOP, Matias Erdely. The unsettling, nervy music score is by Oliver Coates (Aftersun, Under the Skin), Park Jiha and Agnes Obel.

The other remarkable aspect of the film is the lead performances. The terrific young actor Mescal plays opposite Saoirse Ronan, who first made a huge impression as a tragically jealous adolescent in Atonement. As Junior’s wife, hers is the more interesting, conflicted role. In the low-lit interiors of the farmhouse, the camera captures every thought or question that flits across her face. While less is required of Mescal, his transformation into fifth-generation Midwest farming stock is equally remarkable.

You have made the shortlist, the wary couple hear from their visitor, who looks official. And how long can you keep going battling alone in the middle of nowhere anyway, while vast numbers of people are being displaced, as tornadoes rage across the continent? How long can they continue to manage without rain? And how much longer can Junior slog away in the gleaming industrial towers of the chicken factory and stay sane?

Here’s the rub, his avatar will need intimate knowledge of their marriage

The deal is that the couple agree to sign away their lives for a couple of years. Junior will become part of the team on a space station while Hen awaits his return down below. For the duration, so that she can manage the farm, such as it is, and so that he won’t be missed, Junior will be replaced by an identical virtual being, a twin operated by artificial intelligence. Here’s the rub, his replacement will need intimate knowledge of their marriage.

It goes without saying that we are all only just beginning to think about how to get ready for advances in AI. When it seems they will make a serious challenge to what we understand by our humanity and how we exercise free will. How far will AI advance into areas like consciousness, human love and other intimate experience?

Foe hovers at the edges of some intriguing territory but could have strengthened its ideas at the writing stage. The screenplay is a collaboration between director Davis and the best-selling Canadian author Iain Reid.

One of the most interesting and odd-ball films released a few years ago was I’m Thinking of Ending Things, based on the first novel by Reid, who grew up on a remote farm in Ontario. Its underlying tensions between seclusion and companionship reappear as an ongoing dilemma in Foe but the backstory of climate change and the foreground hot-button issues around AI take Foe direct into the mainstream.

Although there are a few too many longueurs and, given the scope of the question of AI, too few knotty problems, the film does deliver persuasively in its final moments. For so many years, sci-fi has been obsessing about what was out there in deep space, but now the existential challenges look a lot closer to home.

First published in the Canberra Times on 3 November 2023.  Jane’s reviews can also be read on Rotten Tomatoes