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Review: God’s Creatures proves Paul Mescal can be bad as well as sad

Emily Watson as Aileen O’Hara & Paul Mescal as Brian O’Hara in GOD’S CREATURES
Courtesy of A24

Since Paul Mescal burst on to the scene as one of the stars of Normal People, he’s given many impressive performances and garnered a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Aftersun. This made him a big pull for God’s Creatures, a new film from A24, directed by Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer. Mescal effortlessly plays a much more menacing character than viewers are used to, in this slow, interior drama.

God’s Creatures is a dark, family melodrama about Aileen (Emily Watson), the manager of a small seafood processing plant in a remote Irish fishing village. Aileen works with Sarah (Aisling Franciosi), a young woman in an abusive marriage. When Aileen’s estranged son Brian (Mescal) suddenly returns from an unexplained move to Australia, Aileen is keen to reunite her family. However, events happen shortly after Brian’s return which plunges the family into despair, forcing Aileen to decide where her loyalties lie.

The ideas explored by God’s Creatures are really interesting. It takes a stark look at a stifling and enabling relationship between a mother and son and compares that to other dysfunctional relationships, including marriage and employment. It also asks questions about familial expectations, especially when poverty restricts choice, shown here in how the family all care for Aileen’s Dementia-beset brother and help Brian’s sister Erin (Toni O’Rourke) look after her young child. The village feels coated in death. A sad, backward place with a sense of foreboding, making the film an uneasy watch. Although Mescal is a key draw, God’s Creatures is also a Watson vehicle. The actress was herself nominated for an Oscar at a similar age to Mescal (she was 29 and he was 27) and her skill hasn’t diminished. Alas, she is required to do a lot with a character who is mired in internal conflict. Although there have been plenty of movies that explore mothers who are a little too close to their sons, characters like Aileen, older mothers with high internalised misogyny, rarely get to lead a film, and God’s Creatures does a good job showing how Aileen wrestles with her changing worldview.

This film also welcomes the viewer into an often-unseen difficult world of oyster farming. It’s just a shame that God’s Creatures is so sad and stilted, with a story weighted by so many misfortunes. It becomes less of a thriller and more poverty porn. Barring the decor of Aileen’s house, this kitchen-sink drama could have been set 70 years ago. It’s stuck in a time-warp, full of characters incapable of change or escape, who suffer inevitable decline. Only Erin seems to act with any intellect and understanding, O’Rourke is memorably sympathetic with her little screen time. Yes, Mescal is great. Brian is an inscrutable, dangerous person, but he and the rest of the cast are too good for a script that trundles to its conclusion. The entire film is somewhat inscrutable, as it plays with ambiguities, and this refusal to commit to one clear point of view hampers the film’s ability to provide any satisfying closure.

The issues raised in God’s Creatures have always demanded exploration, but without any levity or defined message, this film doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of its cast.

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