It’s the dead of night. A desolate cottage surrounded by dead trees and barren farmland is suddenly lit up by eerie green car headlights. Junior (Paul Mescal) wakes from the couch to look out the window at this unexpected visitor. He’s joined by his wife Henrietta (Saoirse Ronan), who fidgets as they decide what to do. They argue and eventually open the door to the visitor (Aaron Pierre), who introduces himself as Terrance, a representative of an aerospace corporation called OuterMore who wants to send Junior up to space as part of an initiative to test whether humans can survive on colonies. The Earth is dying, and the last hope for humanity may be in the stars.
But that’s not what Foe, Garth Davis’ stilted adaptation of the chilling sci-fi thriller by Iain Reid, is about. Foe is about what happens when Junior is sent to space. In the two years that Junior is gone, Outermore is prepared to leave Hen with an AI duplicate of him to keep her company. Though Junior is outraged at the idea, the two of them eventually relent.
It’s an intriguing premise, and one befitting the writer of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which was adapted into a fantastically unnerving thriller by Charlie Kaufman in 2020. Unfortunately, it turns out Garth Davis is uniquely unsuitable to turn this kind of heady, cerebral sci-fi story into anything remotely watchable.
Davis co-wrote Foe with Reid, turning Reid’s acclaimed novel into a script that shows its hand way too early and with far too little tact. Right off the bat, the film sacrifices the mystery of the story with a couple of title cards that explain the state of the Earth and the existence of “Human Substitutes,” facts that are explained in even greater detail by the characters later on.
But if Davis is too generous in conveying the details of this near-future world, he’s not generous enough when it comes to what his central characters are going through. Junior and Hen are both blank ciphers that we only get to know through their long testimonies to Terrance. Sometimes they’re prone to emotional outbursts or venomous arguments, but apart from a handful of steamy scenes, we barely get the sense they even love each other. Mescal and Ronan may both be two of the most talented actors working today, but even they can only do so much with a wooden script. Left without anchor, Mescal and Ronan throw their energy into film-school-level dialogue with a vigor that can only turn overwrought. Only Pierre seems aware of what kind of movie this is, delivering a performance just on the right side of arch.
Foe’s biggest problem is that it holds the audience at arm’s length for the majority of its runtime, obviously setting the stage for a third-act twist. But with a story as internal as this one — and which mostly takes place in a single location — building everything around a twist is the wrong approach. Davis, who earned a slew of Oscar nominations for the mostly solid biopic Lion, is far too conventional a director to handle a story that could have sung in the hands of a much more cerebral director like Kaufman. Davis’ attempts at psychological thrills only turn melodramatic, while his attempts at tapping into deeper philosophical and ethical questions come off as baffling.
The strange half-hearted attempts at capturing the more evocative elements of the story are best embodied by a late-act monologue from Mescal’s Junior, who whips himself into such a fury that he starts pounding the wall bloody. Unfortunately, his monologue was about being disgusted by watching people eat. On paper, perhaps it was more effectively chilling, but here, it comes out of nowhere.
Ultimately, Foe is about the art of playing pretend. Junior and Hen are pretending at a happy marriage as a stranger and his strange proposition threatens to tear them apart. Hen is preparing to pretend to be in love with the replica of her husband. And the film is pretending at its idea of a prestige sci-fi movie. Sadly, it falls very, very short of its goal.