Paul Mescal’s new A24 movie is a murky Irish psychodrama
'Normal People' was no fluke. 'God's Creatures' is proof he's a versatile leading man.
God’s Creatures premiered at the Cannes Film Festival 2022. This review contains mild spoilers.
It’s been a while since we’ve seen Paul Mescal. The actor, made famous by Normal People back in the pandemic-driven days of 2020, has been plotting his next steps carefully. In fact, it took over a year for him to show up in another project — Maggie Gyllenhaal’s 2021, Oscar-nominated directorial debut, The Lost Daughter — and even then, his appearance was so slight that it feels like he’s been vacant for far longer. As a result, his latest — directed by Saela Davis & Anna Rose Holmer and distributed by A24 — God’s Creatures, acts as his most significant role since his breakout. Murky and inquisitive, interrogating the isolation of village life and how greatly we can trust our families, it’s a mood shift from the lovestruck and light melancholia of that buzzy series.
In God’s Creatures, a lie — one word, as slight but as sore as a hairline fracture — threatens to crumble a small Irish fishing village into the sea. It’s a scene that lasts barely a minute, but acts as the moment the film turns on its head, and its protagonist’s own downward spiral ensues.
Set in Ireland, the film hones in on the O’Hara family, headed up by Aileen, the matriarch who works as a supervisor in the local fish factory, played by recognisable British face Emily Watson (Punch-Drunk Love, Breaking the Waves). The isolated humdrum of her life switches all of a sudden when her son Brian, played by Paul Mescal, returns home from Australia as a surprise; his sister, father and ailing grandfather equally shocked to see him.
After all, the workers at the fish plant spend cigarette breaks wondering what might have become of their lives had they left like Brian did. There are scant resources or demand for anything other than fishing, but leaving a community so small feels like a grandiose statement. Especially, in a town where most people are born, live and die under the same roof.
And so Brian returns, surveying the struggling family fishing business that fell apart when he chose to fly the nest, and considers how he could play a part in its revival. But the slow return to normal is changed by an accusation, and that aforementioned lie told in the wake of it. It raises the question: where do our alliances lie in situations where the pain a person feels is scarring and persistent? And how much can time and distance change our relationship with someone we love?
The movie, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in the prestigious Director’s Fortnight sidebar (famously the birthplace of filmmakers like Xavier Dolan and Chloé Zhao), marks the return of Saela and Anna, known best for their 2015 fictional feature debut The Fits. That movie, following a Cincinnati-based 11-year-old drill dancer and her troupe, was a festival hit, and far-removed location-wise from God’s Creatures. While they wrote the story for their debut, this time they worked alongside Fodhla Cronin O'Reilly and Shane Crowley on the script, who we assume have closer ties to its quaint setting.
The movie is, from a technical perspective, gorgeously formed: the dawn and dusk hues of seaside Ireland feel by turns lurid and dusty, small fishing boats cutting through the navy ink of the water. That’s the fine work of Canadian-American cinematographer Chayse Irvin, who alongside this has also worked on Beyoncé’s Lemonade and the forthcoming Marilyn Monroe biopic, Blonde. Perhaps it’s that outsider’s perspective that has helped its behind-the-scenes team paint a picture of a ubiquitous town in a way that’s both alluring and volatile, pairing well with its compelling script.
To say more would involve spoiling the bite of God’s Creatures, but know this, at least: Normal People was no fluke. God's Creatures — a sharp, inquisitive and powerful film — proves our man Paul Mescal has absolutely got the acting prowess to become something greater than the project that birthed him.