Review: ‘God’s Creatures,’ starring Emily Watson and Paul Mescal

October 22, 2022

by Carla Hay

Paul Mescal and Emily Watson in “God’s Creatures” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“God’s Creatures”

Directed by Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed rural village in Ireland, the dramatic film “God’s Creatures” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class.

Culture Clash: A woman who manages her family’s oyster farm has to decide how loyal she wants to be to her son after he’s accused of raping one of her employees, and she tells a lie to create an alibi for him.

Culture Audience: “God’s Creatures” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of star Emily Watson and well-acted movies about moral dilemmas.

Aisling Franciosi in “God’s Creatures” (Photo courtesy of A24)

Despite its slow pacing, “God’s Creatures” is a very effective psychological drama that brings up ethical questions about family loyalty and dealing with sexual assault. Emily Watson gives an emotionally stirring performance as a conflicted mother who has to reckon with her own responsibility in possibly covering up a serious crime. It’s a movie that shows why denial can be just as toxic as a criminal act.

Directed by Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer, “God’s Creatures” (written by Shane Crowley) was filmed on location in County Donegal, Ireland. It’s here, in an unnamed fishing village, that Aileen O’Hara (played by Watson) thinks she’s living an uncomplicated life that revolves around her work and her family. Aileen has been happily married to her husband Con (played by Declan Conlon) for about 35 years. Together, they own an oyster farm, where Aileen works as a manager of the oyster processing plant. Con mainly supervises the oyster fishermen.

Aileen and Con have two children: Erin O’Sullivan (played by Toni O’Rourke) and Brian O’Hara (played by Paul Mescal), who are opposites in many ways. Erin, who has lived in the village her entire life, is in her 30s and is a single mother to an infant son. Brian, who is in his mid-to-late 20s, is a freewheeling bachelor with no children. For the past seven years, Brian lived in Australia and had stopped contacting his family. Near the beginning of the movie, Brian suddenly shows up in the village and expects to pick up right where he left off before he moved away to Australia.

The father of Erin’s baby is not in Erin’s life and won’t be involved in raising the child. Erin knows that many people in the community are religious and politically conservative. And therefore, she’s aware that being a single mother who is not widowed carries a certain stigma. Based on the fact that Erin has a different last name from her parents, it’s implied that she’s divorced. It’s not clear if her ex-husband is the father of her child or not, but Erin has told her family that the father of her child didn’t even know she was pregnant and therefore doesn’t know the child exists.

Brian is a prodigal son who was known as a troublemaker before he moved away to Australia. He is welcomed back with open arms by Aileen, who is very happy to see him. Con and Erin are much more wary and skeptical of Brian’s sudden reappearance. It’s open to interpretation why Brian suddenly wanted to move back to this small village. Was he running home to his family or running away from something?

Brian won’t really say why he suddenly decided to move back to his hometown without giving his family any advance notice. His family doesn’t press the issue, and he lives in Aileen and Con’s home. Brian is also quickly given a job as a fisherman in the family business. Although the O’Hara family is responsible for employing about 40 to 50 people in the village, the family lives modestly but is aware that the family has a certain amount of power in this community.

Con’s elderly father Paddy O’Hara (played by Lalor Roddy) also lives on the family property. Paddy, who is mute and might have dementia, passed on the family’s oyster business to Con, who promised Paddy that he would keep the business going. In his current mental state, Paddy is mostly unresponsive when people try to talk to him.

However, when Brian comes back to live in the family home, Paddy seems to light up when he’s around Brian. Brian is attentive to Paddy and helps take care of him like a dutiful and compassionate grandson. At one point, Brian is able to coax Paddy out of Paddy’s muteness, by getting Paddy to sing out loud.

It becomes obvious early on in the story that Aileen favors Brian over Erin. Brian has a very charismatic side to him where he shows that he can be outgoing and charming. He’s a “mama’s boy” who knows that Aileen is more likely than Con to forgive or overlook Brian’s flaws and misdeeds. As far as Aileen is concerned, whatever wrongdoings that Brian committed in the past, they should stay in the past. Aileen thinks Brian deserves a chance to prove that he’s turned his life around.

The opening scene of “God’s Creatures” is a subtle indication of how this village is rooted in traditions and superstitions. A fisherman named Mark Fitz, who worked for the O’Hara family, has been found dead in the sea, and his body has been taken out of the water. He drowned because he didn’t know how to swim. His mother Mary Fitz (played by Marion O’Dwyer) works in the processing plant. This drowning happened before Brian came back to the village to live.

The villagers traditionally don’t want their fishermen to know how to swim, so that if one of them is drowning, other people won’t be responsible for jumping in the water to save the drowning person. No one really questions this tradition, which is an indication that people in the community are willing to sacrifice others for a “survival of the fittest” mentality. As an example of Erin’s willingness to be a nonconformist in this tight-knit village, she tells her family that she’s going to teach her son how to swim.

One of Erin’s closest friends is Sarah Murphy (played by Aisling Franciosi), who works at the O’Hara family’s oyster processing plant. Like many people in the village, Sarah has lived there her entire life. Sarah, who is closer in age to Brian than she is to Erin, is a former schoolmate of Brian’s. She is trapped in an unhappy and abusive marriage to Francie D’Arcy (played by Brendan McCormack), who is very controlling and often accuses her of being unfaithful to him. Sarah having a different last name from her husband is an indication that she has an independent streak.

Sarah confides in Erin that due to her arguments with Francie, “I’ve been back in my parents’ house for a couple of nights. Time puts it all into perspective very quickly. He was brutal with his words. Still, though, he’s just like anyone else, though. We’re all God’s creatures in the dark.”

One night, Brian is hanging out at a local pub owned by a man named Dan Nell (played by Enda Oates), who is also the chief bartender. Sarah is there too, and Brian strikes up a flirtatious conversation with her. “I can’t believe you’re still here, to be honest,” Brian tells Sarah. “I thought you’d long abandon this place.”

Sarah replies, “Everything I need was here. I didn’t have to go looking for it.” Brian says, “Likewise.” This statement from Brian seems to be not very honest, since he obviously was looking for something somewhere else, by living in Australia for years and deliberately not contacting his family.

Brian then begins to reminisce about the good times that he and Sarah used to have when they were teenagers. Sarah curtly says about this reminsicing, “I wouldn’t get too hung up on it if I were you.” It’s implied that Brian has been attracted to Sarah for years. And now that he knows she’s in a troubled marriage, he wants to know if he has a chance with her. However, Sarah quickly shuts down this possibility.

About one week after this encounter, the O’Hara family business gets some bad news: Fungus has been found in some of the harvested oysters, so the fishing operations are temporarily halted. Around the same time, Sarah has been acting strangely on the job. On day, she faints near one of the conveyor belts, and when Aileen goes over to help her, Sarah says to her in a hostile manner: “Don’t touch me!”

Aileen will soon find out why Sarah is acting this way. One night, a garda named Mike (played by Andrew Bennett) visits the O’Hara family home to tell Aileen that a woman (whose name he won’t disclose) has accused Brian of raping her the week before. Brian has denied it and says that on the night in question of the alleged rape, he was at home all night, and Aileen can vouch for him. Mike asks Aileen if Brian’s alibi is true, and Aileen automatically says yes.

However, later when Aileen confronts Brian about where he was that night, he admits he was out in Dan Nell’s pub, where his accuser says that they were at, but that he had no sexual contact with her. Brian vigorously tells Aileen that he didn’t sexually assault anyone. It isn’t long before Aileen finds out that Sarah is Brian’s accuser.

Aileen believes Brian, so she feels resentment toward Sarah and thinks that Sarah is trying to ruin Brian’s life. Sarah feels resentment toward Aileen, because she thinks that Aileen is willfully covering up for Brian. Meanwhile, Erin is inclined to believe Sarah and doesn’t like it that Aileen refuses to hear Sarah’s side of the story. Needless to say, the tension builds when an investigation yields a result that is bound to make one side very unhappy.

“God’s Creatures” is a “slow burn” story where the last third of the movie is the best part. As soon as Aileen finds out that Brian doesn’t have an alibi for the period of time that he was accused of raping Sarah, the seeds of doubt have been planted in Aileen’s mind, but she tries to repress this doubt at all costs. Erin, who always felt like Aileen unfairly favored Brian over Erin, becomes increasingly infuriated with Aileen for what Erin thinks is misguided parental protection. Con stays out of this family conflict by not taking either side.

Meanwhile, Brian gets the support from many people in the community who think of him as a reformed “good guy,” and they want the rape accusation to go away. As for Sarah, coming forward with this rape allegation has made life much worse for her at her home and at work. She gets bullied and shamed by certain members of the community who think that she’s lying.

“God’s Creatures” is a scathing and often-melancholy rumination of how society often deals with sexual assault—a crime that is typically very hard to prove because there are usually only two witnesses: the accuser and the accused. If the accused admits to having sexual contact with the accuser, the accused usually says that this sexual contact was consensual. Sarah is blamed by some people for waiting a week to come forward with her accusation. It’s a common reaction from people who don’t know or don’t care that when an accuser chooses to comes forward is not proof of an accuser’s honesty or dishonesty about the allegation.

Watson gives a very nuanced performance as Aileen, who thinks of herself as a moral and upstanding person, but Aileen starts to question what kind of person she is the more she begins to doubt that Brian is telling the truth. Mescal probably has the hardest role to play, since the Brian character is supposed to keep viewers guessing up to a certain point if he’s a “good guy” or not. Franciosi has some standout moments in her role as Sarah, who finds out quickly that her entire reputation can change once she’s labeled a rape accuser.

The rape accusation causes a rift in the O’Hara family, as Erin makes it clear that she’s on Sarah’s side. However, the movie also shows how the accusation affects the entire community, not just the O’Hara family and Sarah. “God’s Creatures” is a depiction of how society can be complicit in enabling harm. And in this community, where the attitude is “survival of the fittest,” justice and peace often can’t be found in a court of law.

A24 released “God’s Creatures” in select U.S. cinemas on September 30, 2022.

Review: ‘The Racer,’ starring Louis Talpe

October 4, 2020

by Carla Hay

Louis Talpe and Matteo Simoni in “The Racer” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“The Racer”

Directed by Kieron J. Walsh

Culture Representation: Taking place in Ireland in 1998, the sports drama “The Racer” features an all-white cast representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 38-year-old Belgian cyclist, who is a domestique (supporting) team member in the 1998 Tour de France, faces an uncertain future because he’s been a longtime doper who will soon be considered too old for the sport, at a time when pro cycling officials are starting to crack down on dopers.

Culture Audience: “The Racer” will appeal primarily to people interested in dramatic movies about professional cyclists, the Tour de France and the types of athletes who take performance-enhancing drugs.

Louis Talpe and Tara Lee in “The Racer” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

You don’t have to be a sports fan to know that for many athletes, winning at all costs is the only thing that matters. It’s why using performance-enhancing drugs (or “doping”) will always be around, even though some sports leagues have made some headline-grabbing attempts to punish athletes who have been caught using these drugs while competing in their sports. “The Racer” is a fictional look at a professional cyclist who is caught up in a doping lifestyle, not just because he wants to do it, but because he can.

People who are interested in the psychology and culture of doping in cycling have plenty of documentaries for reference, including the Oscar-winning 2017 film “Icarus” and the several documentaries that have been made about disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, who was stripped of all of his Tour de France champion titles. “The Racer” (directed by Kieron J. Walsh), which takes place in 1998, is an intimate look at a fictional doper cyclist who’s a “domestique”: someone whose only job on the team is not to win but to be a supporting team player who will help the chosen team member win.

Because of the nature of their supporting roles on the team, domestiques don’t get the glory of being racing champions. It takes a certain kind of person who is willing to accept this role of knowing they’ve agreed in advance to lose the race as an individual so that someone else on the team can win. These types of athletes don’t have a big enough ego to crave being the center of attention as a champion. They’re just happy to be a part of the team and make it to the big leagues of the Tour de France.

Belgian cyclist Dominique “Dom” Chabol (played by Louis Talpe) is that type of person. Dom, who is part of the fictional Austrange cycling team of international cyclists, is at a crossroads in his career because his contract with the team might not get renewed and he’s at an age when most professional athletes have to start preparing for retirement. He is 38 years old, he’s been a sports cyclist for about 25 years, and his entire identity is being a cyclist. At one point in the movie he says, “Without a bike, I’m nobody.”

Dom is also a longtime doper. Why? Because being a doper is considered “normal” in pro cycling. Almost all the pro cyclists take performance-enhancing drugs, according to Dom. Based on what former Tour de France champ Armstrong and many of his former teammates have told the media, doping in pro cycling has been an open secret in real life for years.

Dom is a loner whose closest companion is his cycling team’s “Dr. Feelgood,” who supplies them with the drugs and secretive medical treatment that he gives to the dopers on the team. This drug supplier is a Brit named Sonny McElhone (played by Iain Glen), a former pro cyclist who has a “father figure” persona to the cyclists on the team. Sonny travels with the team, so that he’s always on call whenever members of the team need his services.

Sonny’s official title is “trainer/physical therapist” but he’s really a glorified drug dealer who injects the cyclists with the drugs and does things like gives massages to the cyclists, watches them train, and monitors their vital signs. Dom is one of Sonny’s favorite team members because Dom is easy to get along with and respectful to everyone. Sonny also makes sure that the team’s owners and management don’t get all the details about the drug activity, because these head honchos just don’t want to know.

The star cyclist of the Austrange team is Lupo “Tartare” Marino (played by Matteo Simoni), an emotionally volatile Italian who is both cocky and insecure. Tartare is most insecure the night before a big race, when he has severe anxiety. When he has these anxiety attacks, Tartare paces back and forth and starts rambling about how he’s going to lose the race. Tartare also has the huge ego of someone who needs to be the center of attention, but he backs up that ego with the athletic talent of someone who’s very capable of winning races.

Dom is the only one who can really calm Tartare’s nerves when Tartare is having an anxiety attack. Therefore, Tartare is not only physically dependent on Dom to be his domestique during their races together, but Tartare is also emotionally dependent on Dom. Tartare and Dom are not close friends, but they are generally respectful of each other.

The Austrange Team’s coach is nicknamed Viking (played by Karel Roden), who is a no-nonsense leader with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about the doping on his team. His chief concern is winning. And if members of the team use illegal drugs that are commonplace in their profession, he’s not going to stop them.

Dom does not have the type of close relationship with Viking that he has with Sonny. Dom’s contract with the Austrange team will soon be up for renewal, but Viking won’t give Dom an answer either way about whether or not the team will renew the contract with Dom. Viking says that a lot of it will depend on how well Dom does in the current Tour de France, which is taking place in Ireland that year, since France is hosting the World Cup.

The movie takes place when the Austrange Team is in Ireland for the first three stages of the Tour de France. During this trip, Dom starts to experience difficulty breathing, dizziness and night sweats. And so, Sonny calls a doctor to give Dom a checkup in Dom’s hotel room.

The doctor who gives Dom this medical exam is one of those “only in the movies” type of doctor. She just happens to be a 26-year-old Irish blonde beauty who looks and dresses more like a young actress than a typical doctor. Her name is Dr. Lynn Brennan (played by Tara Lee), and she’s the only woman in the movie with a significant on-camera speaking role. As soon as Lynn is introduced in the movie, it’s obvious that she’s going to be the love interest for Dom.

It’s a very “male gaze” director cliché that the would-be girlfriend has to be good-looking and often much younger than the leading man. The Lynn Brennan character is the one casting choice in the movie that is not convincing at all. And it didn’t have to be that way. It would not have been hard to cast a female doctor who’s attractive and intelligent but also looks like she actually has several years of job experience in the real world, instead of someone who looks like she recently graduated from college.

“The Racer” director Walsh (who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Ciaran Cassidy) fortunately doesn’t let the movie get bogged down in a sappy romance. The movie realistically shows that an athlete like Dom who’s competing in the Tour de France will have this race as his single-minded obsession until his next major race. It’s why when Dom’s sister Emilie (played by Clarissa Vermaark) calls to tell Dom the bad news that their father has died, Dom chooses not to go to the funeral because it would mean that he would miss out on being in the Tour De France.

Emilie (who is not seen in the movie and is only a voice over the phone) is very upset with Dom’s decision, but he is unmoved. Dom isn’t cold-hearted, but he explains to Lynn that he never had a very emotionally close relationship with his parents. By contrast, Lynn is very close to her family. While she and Dom are at a pub together in their free time, she introduces him to her father Peter (played by Reamonn O’Byrne) and her uncle John (Lalor Roddy), who appear briefly in the film.

As for the racing scenes, they’re thrilling and filmed realistically. Because Dom is introverted, he tends to be emotionally closed off from his other teammates, so the other members of the team aren’t given much screen time in the movie. Dom is friendly to a young team newcomer named Enzo (played by Diogo Cid), who looks up to Dom. Although Dom gives this newbie team member some advice, Dom doesn’t exactly mentor Enzo either, since Dom keeps mostly to himself.

Because so much of “The Racer” depends on how Dom is depicted, Talpe does an admirable job in portraying the inner conflicts of someone who doesn’t express his emotions easily. He has a convincing physique as a doper cyclist with no body fat, but Talpe also brings to life a compelling psychological portrait of this very specific athlete. Glen also does a very good performance as Sonny, who come across as someone who’s convinced that he’s helping these athletes, even though the drugs he administers have long-term damaging effects to the athletes’ health.

The doping problem is not treated lightly in the movie (you can bet there’s at least one health scare experienced by a doper on the team), as the storyline of “The Racer” depicts the real-life doping scandal that took place during the 1998 Tour de France. Dom also has trouble dealing with how getting older is affecting his status on the team, when Viking chooses a younger, less experienced teammate named Erik Schultz (played by Paul Robert) instead of Dom for an important part of the Tour de France.

Will Lynn find out Dom’s doping secret? Will Dom get caught by racing officials? Will the Austrange team renew Dom’s contract, or will he go to another team? (The movie shows Dom making inquiries to join another team, in case he becomes a free agent.) All of those questions are answered in the movie, where Dom indeed makes some big decisions about his future. “The Racer” is a fictional story but it’s a competent dramatic depiction of the real-life issues faced by a doper cyclist whose entire self-esteem is wrapped up in the sport.

Gravitas Ventures released “The Racer” on digital and VOD on September 18, 2020.

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