Set in 2065, Garth Davis’ “Foe” begins with some introductory text about the invention of A.I. “simulants” that are indistinguishable from human beings, which immediately prepares us for the idea that one or all of the three characters in this smart but stifling chamber piece might be swapped out for a perfect double at some point. And yet, that crucial bit of background info doesn’t seem to become relevant to this story for a curiously long time.
Instead, Davis’ screenplay — co-written by “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” author Iain Reid, and adapted from his novel of the same name — leaves it to linger in the air like a faint smell as it settles into a story about a married couple who find themselves facing a sci-fi threat of a different sort when the government selects one of them to be sent into space.
High school sweethearts Hen (Saoirse Ronan) and Junior (Paul Mescal) have been husband and wife for seven years, all of them spent alone together in the isolated Midwestern farmhouse that Junior inherited from centuries of Juniors before him. By the time the movie starts, this bonny pair of definitely-not-Irish twentysomethings are already grappling with the kind of identity crises that more typically creeps up on people a decade or two down the road, and the barren fields that surround their property offer a fitting backdrop for the faded love between them.
Massive dust storms and sandy rivers that run pink like dried blood add to the symptoms of a planet suffocating to death so fast that an agency called OuterMore has started conscripting healthy Americans into off-world trials aboard a satellite called the Installation, and the headlights that appear outside of Hen and Junior’s window one night indicate that one of them will be the next to go. Yes, only one of them.
But it gets even worse for Junior, a corn-fed Stanley Kowalski type whose participation in the program isn’t optional: Not only does the (kind but firm) OuterMore agent assigned to his case invite himself to stay in the farmhouse during the years of preliminary testing that will prepare our man for his visit to the stars, but Terrance (Aaron Pierre) is also more than handsome enough to credibly intimidate a character played by Paul Mescal, and he seems determined to inflame the tensions between his new hosts. Permanently shaken out of the stasis that he’s always seen as a refuge, Junior awakens to the fact that change has come for him in the form of an uninvited guest who refuses to leave — as obstinate as global warming.
Terrance frames the opportunity with OuterMore as “a chance to be a better version of yourself,” but the mere threat of personal iteration opens Junior’s eyes to the reality that he and Hen have been in flux since the moment they got engaged. Has she always had such a distant look in her eyes? Has her body always felt so uncertain to Junior’s touch, and her abiding beauty so detached from the feelings that it once provoked in him? Did she ever actually play the dusty piano they keep in the basement, or has she always just run her fingers over the keys as if settling for sense memory without any hope of music? It’s not that Junior doesn’t know the answers to these questions, but rather that he’s never accepted the need to ask them in the first place.
“What am I to you?,” Hen wants to know. What else would she be?
By the time Terrance finally tells Junior that he’ll be replaced by a simulant when he goes into orbit, it’s become clear why “Foe” reveals that inevitability from the start rather than framing it like a plot twist: People are replaced by themselves every day of their lives, whether they like it or not. The changes are often imperceptible, as we tend to shed our skins one cell at a time, but the woman Junior wed seven years ago isn’t the woman he’s married to now. Their marriage, like all marriages only more so, is essentially the relationship of Theseus; so many of its parts have been swapped that it’s arguably no longer the same marriage that it was at the start.
Some couples will do anything to remain seaworthy, while others would sooner go down with the ship. Most of them sit there and watch the water slowly rise through the cabins, hoping that they’ll die of natural causes before they drown (not incidentally, the same breakdown could be applied to our relationship with the environment). “There’s only one of me,” Junior insists, but he’s only half right: There’s only one of him at a time, an abstraction made literal by the fact that he won’t be allowed to meet the simulant that OuterMore creates from Terrance’s data.
So while “Foe” might occasionally betray the trappings of a “Black Mirror” episode (glimpses of future tech are intercut like glitches in the Matrix, though they prove less destabilizing than errant shots of dry plains and dead beetles), the sci-fi here is largely in service to a slow-burning and implosive relationship drama about the tension between evolution and stasis. Perverse as it is to cast two of the world’s most talented young actors as the two sides of a curdled marriage, Mescal and Ronan both excel at sinking into themselves, with the latter’s irrepressible force of will squeezing against the walls of the musty farmhouse as if her life were a shoe five sizes too small. Pierre, who won’t be the least well-known member of this trio for much longer, is more than able to keep up with his Oscar-nominated co-stars; his sincere but enigmatic performance allows Terrance to be a psychosexual threat, a lightning rod for our suspicions, and a positive agent of change all at once.
If anything, Davis’ cast is so good at conveying their inner turmoils that “Foe” can’t help but belabor the point; absent the interiority of Reid’s prose (and wisely opting to be selective about its voiceover), this adaptation struggles to find pockets of life amid the torpor of of its circumstance. It is and should be oppressive to watch two people who are stuck in a rut and isolated from both each other and the world at large, but the film’s sci-fi machinations — all of which are hiding in plain sight — prove stifling in ways that stunt its drama, as some of the things that Hen and Junior are hiding from each other need to be kept hidden from us as well.
And so, like its characters, “Foe” itself often seems as if it’s stalling for time, and the nuances introduced along the way do little to complicate the quasi-love triangle that forms between Junior, Hen, and Terrance (id, ego, and superego, respectively). The movie’s final stretch reveals a satisfying and non-judgmental method to its madness, but much of the journey there feels as frustratingly elusive to watch as it would be to live through.
The difference is that our curiosity is compounded by the weight of genre expectations and thematic symbolism, while Hen and Junior have grown numb to the alien desolation of the landscape around them (vividly portrayed by the Winton Wetlands of Australia). They can’t hear the pleading strains of Park Jiha and Oliver Coates’ masterful score (although the piano composition that Agnes Obel wrote for Hen to play serves as a conduit), or appreciate the inertia of the film’s accelerating timeline.
Most of all, they can’t know the bittersweet reality of being replaced, because neither of them will be around to see it happen for themselves. All they can hope for is to find self-liberation through the acceptance of a new reality, whether that means riding out the relationship they started with or making peace with the one they built along the way. “Strange how dying can still be beautiful,” Hen sighs as she eyes the motionless body of a beetle on the floor. And sure enough it can be, but the beautiful thing about “Foe” is how it leads its characters to remember there’s more to life than that.
“Foe” premiered at the 2023 New York Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release it in theaters on Friday, October 6.