“Foe” is a perplexing dystopian science fiction film featuring Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal as a farm couple residing in the Midwest in the year 2065 (and it seems they’re the last surviving Midwestern farm couple). At first glance, the film’s premise, which appears to blend elements of “Interstellar” and “Blade Runner,” might lead one to believe that two indie darlings are departing from their low-budget, poetic film roots to dive into the blockbuster machine. However, “Foe” is not a visual effects-laden, box-office-driven spectacle. The majority of the film unfolds within the confines of the couple’s centuries-old farmhouse and is meticulously crafted to extract every ounce of raw acting prowess from Ronan and Mescal.
The story begins with Ronan’s character, Hen (short for Henrietta), standing in the shower, tears streaming down her face. We hear her inner thoughts in voice-over, reflecting on her marriage and invoking the familiar notion that relationships start with romantic idealism but gradually lose their magic, leaving behind something cold and uninspiring. Hen even feels that parts of herself have withered away.
Soon after, Mescal’s character, Junior, makes his entrance with a friendly demeanor and a charming grin reminiscent of Mark Ruffalo’s younger sibling. The film then immerses viewers in the lives of this couple, highlighting their emotional distance from each other, a theme akin to Antonioni’s works. However, this depiction raises practical questions for the audience, such as: Why don’t they have friends, children, or pets? What do they do all day?
Junior works at an industrial chicken plant, while Hen, given Junior’s profession, raises eyebrows as a feminist pun of sorts, working as a diner waitress and spending most of her time in a state of melancholy. The farmhouse, bearing the traces of a bygone era with peeling paint and 20th-century furnishings, has been in Junior’s family for generations, and he is determined to stay, a source of tension between them. Their extreme isolation begins to take a toll on their marriage.
The film’s opening title sets the stage for “Foe” as a standard cautionary tale set in a bleak future where climate catastrophe has ravaged the world, cities lie in ruins, and humanity explores the possibility of colonies in space as a refuge from Earth’s troubles. Furthermore, AI technology is introduced, with replicants serving as laborers. Although the movie paints a foreboding picture of the world, much of this apocalyptic setting remains off-screen, as if it were a movie playing on a different channel. However, it intrudes upon Hen and Junior’s lives in an unsettlingly personal manner.
Terrance (Aaron Pierre), a representative of the presumed totalitarian government or corporation that oversees everything, arrives in a futuristic car reminiscent of a mid-21st-century DeLorean. (One can’t help but wonder if the film’s effects designers took a trip back to that future.) He brings significant news: Junior has been selected, or rather conscripted, to participate in a two-year experimental space colonization program. He will have to embark on this journey in a year or two, with no say in the matter. There’s another twist to the story – while Junior is away, the government will provide Hen with an AI version of Junior for companionship. Thus, “Foe” transforms from a melancholic relationship drama into a peculiar sci-fi love triangle: me, my wife, and my replicant.
The premise offers intriguing dramatic possibilities, and up until this point, “Foe” appears promising. Viewers are drawn into the film’s languid pacing, giving it the benefit of the doubt. However, what transpires after Terrance’s announcement is puzzling. A year passes, Terrance returns, but instead of taking Junior as promised, he moves in with the couple and subjects them to a series of psychodramatic interviews and tests, pushing Ronan and Mescal to adopt exaggerated, method-acting-class personas.
Mescal, in particular, undergoes a transformation. In “Aftersun,” he portrayed a lovable deadbeat dad, crying and drinking but retaining his charm. In the unreleased “All of Us Strangers,” he becomes a lovelorn queer libertine who remains endearing. In “Foe,” Mescal puts his cuddly image aside for a catharsis that ultimately feels empty. The more he screams, shouts, and agonizes, the more the audience is left wondering, “What is happening in this film?”
When a sci-fi drama centers on a replicant, one can typically expect that the replicant will exhibit some semblance of human emotions, as otherwise, it would be a mundane machine. This concept, once eerie and thought-provoking, has now begun to feel like a marketing ploy for the AI industry. Additionally, given the discourse surrounding “Blade Runner” and the ambiguity surrounding Deckard’s humanity, “Foe” signals that a “human” character might, in fact, be a replicant. Author Iain Reid, who co-wrote the film’s script with director Gareth Davis, clearly draws inspiration from the same films we’ve all watched.
As the Paul Mescal character in “Foe” faces a major revelation, so does the audience. However, the film’s problem lies in what comes after the revelation. Upon reflection, it becomes even less coherent. Ultimately, “Foe” provides a vague message that doesn’t offer profound insight. In summary, it conveys the idea that “every true love needs a fake half.” To communicate this message, the film contorts itself into a convoluted and confusing narrative.