God’s Creatures works best in its embrace of character interiority, but a tendency toward stacking the deck with symbol and portent leaves little nuance to reckon with.
God’s Creatures begins with a promise of something more productively jarring than it actually embodies: a Leviathan-esque hurtle through the ocean water, bubbles obscuring the image, followed by a foreboding shot of the ocean waves. The second feature from the creative team of Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer — 2015’s The Fits was the latter’s directorial debut, while Davis was the editor and makes her official debut here — thus feints at something more experiential, in keeping with its predecessor’s canny combination of a realistic portrayal of a girl coming of age in a specific milieu (young dancers in Cincinnati) with a grounded surreality, flights of fancy taking off in sync with their characters’ emotions.
In God’s Creatures, however, the balance is heavily tilted toward the realism end of Davis and Holmer’s spectrum. The film takes place on the coast of Ireland in a village where seemingly everyone is involved in oyster farming; the men gather the oysters from the baskets, while the women work in the factory, filleting fish and prying open oysters. Overseeing the latter is Aileen (Emily Watson), the foreperson whose normal life is upended when her son Brian (Paul Mescal) unexpectedly returns from a long, quasi-rebellious stint in Australia.
This return is in many ways heralded by a young man’s death, a drowning caused in part by the village’s apparent tradition that nobody should learn to swim, an apt metaphor for the social dynamics that God’s Creatures somewhat inelegantly explores: masculinity, family, and the village at large. This latter element itself isn’t especially fleshed out, however, with characters typically jerry-rigged for a singular purpose, and so the brunt of the drama rests on Aileen, Brian, and the rest of her family, including the elderly and wordless father.
God’s Creatures pivots on a serious crime, which neatly bisects the film into halves, but one of its better qualities is the evenness in tone and mood throughout. From the very first time the foreboding strings come in (admittedly something of a cliché in the current independent scene), a tension arises, borne out in many ways by Davis and Holmer’s precise Scope framings. An impromptu song in the bar unfolds in a pleasing sense of depth, the rows of oyster baskets make for an expansive view of both decay and renewal, and the factory is a hive of activity, tracking with admirable skill as Aileen makes her way around the floor; later, her sense of dislocation and uncertainty is ratcheted up without feeling out of place.
But while Watson and Mescal handle the mother-son relationship — tested by his absence and the crime he committed — quite well, a tendency toward stacking the deck limits the potency that God’s Creatures could have had. Symbols abound: fungus growing in the oysters, a number of deaths in the village, Brian’s easygoing relationship with his grandfather, all of which come to signal the village’s seedy underside to a too obvious degree. By the ending, these motifs have been hammered home, with little ambiguity left as to each character’s fate. Were the film succeeds is in its ultimate embrace of interiority, long scenes of reckoning and quietude that speak much more convincingly than the events taking place around them.