Intense & Unsettling Gothic That Takes Its Time

Dec 22, 2022

Home Movie Reviews God’s Creatures Review: An Intense & Unsettling Gothic That Takes Its Time

God’s Creatures is an unnerving rural gothic tale with two quietly fierce performances that make the film’s slow burn to its climax worth the wait. 

Emily Watson in God’s Creatures

A mother’s love can blind her to her children’s true nature, leading to the dissolution of a life that once seemed so stable. God’s Creatures, directed by Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer, opens with a death — someone’s son has drowned in the waters that lap at the edge of an Irish fishing village. He never learned how to swim, a local custom-turned-superstition that is passed down to stop the village’s children from jumping in the water to save someone from drowning. This is where God’s Creatures begins, blooming into an unnerving rural gothic tale with two quietly fierce performances that make the film’s slow burn to its climax worth the wait.

At the wake of the recently deceased boy, Brian O’Hara (Paul Mescal) makes his grand return home after a decade-long jaunt to Australia, where he didn’t bother to keep up with the family he left behind. At least one person in that family is happy to see him — Aileen (Emily Watson) is elated by his return, her mask of grief slipping away to reveal the shock of Brian’s arrival, which is unplanned but certainly welcome. Brian’s father Con (Declan Conlon) and sister Erin (Toni O’Rourke) have much more complex feelings about his return, yet he and his mother slip into a familiar pattern until an allegation of assault is made against him by Sarah Murphy (Aisling Franciosi). Aileen lies to protect him without much thought of the consequences, leading to an unraveling of family, community, and the relationship at the center of the film.

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Paul Mescal and Emily Watson in God’s Creatures

God’s Creatures takes its time to make sure Brian and Aileen’s relationship works, and Mescal and Watson are a disquieting pair. They care for each other. It shows in the way he lowers the boat’s side as she steps into the water and in the way she pays for his drinks at the local pub without a hint of resentment. It’s in Aileen’s nature, though, and she’s as protective of her son as she is her community. At the local fishery, she stands up for her coworkers when their domineering boss unfairly admonishes one of them. When forced to choose between her community and her family, however, the choice is clear.

Watson sells this turn with just the look in her eyes, a look that God’s Creatures will rely on often. It’s hard to overstate how good Watson is in this film, and it’s a compliment to Mescal, who more than holds his own opposite the veteran performer. Until now, Mescal has only had one major role as Connell Waldron in Hulu’s Sally Rooney adaptation Normal People, and a supporting role in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, The Lost Daughter. Mescal plays Brian with a warmth that belies a much more sinister ambivalence underneath, one that makes it clear that he takes Aileen’s love for granted.

Emily Watson and Paul Mescal in God’s Creatures

This ambivalence sends Aileen into a slow kind of madness, accompanied by an excellent score from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans that does just as much as Watson and Mescal in setting the tone for the film. It’s these four that make up for some of God’s Creatures’ missteps, including the decision to move away from Sarah after the allegation is made. Although the film never questions the veracity of her claim against Brian, seeing more of Franciosi could’ve given the film that extra dynamic it is sometimes missing. As the film hones in on Aileen and Brian, it loses sight of the bigger picture until an ending that ties almost everything together.

God’s Creatures shows how love can lead to delusion with devastating consequences. Accentuated by the cyclical nature of familial bonds that ripple out into a close-knit community, there are no easy answers in God’s Creatures save for the one that matters. Other answers get lost in the blurred space between loyalty and morality, murky territory that may be dissatisfying for some, but is ultimately more honest than something that would seek truth on one side or the other.

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God’s Creatures released in theaters on September 30. The film is 94 minutes long and is rated R for language.

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