“We’re like donkeys that have been broken. For fucks sake. Like, we could have been anything – teachers, nurses, hairdressers”, says Sarah Murphy (Aisling Franciosi), as the women at the seafood processing factory stand around smoking. She’s told not to be so ambitious. There are smiles on their faces. Here, on the harsh Irish coast, dreams are buried deep and when they surface, they form a moment of humorous camaraderie between the older and younger women. These are women that get on with life – they’ve no time to indulge in pipe dreams by the warming fire.
God’s Creatures‘ plot centres on the fallout from an accusation. Shortly after her estranged son Brian O’Hara (Paul Mescal) returns home from Australia, Aileen (Emily Watson) is forced to choose between her moral sense of duty and protecting her only son when Sarah accuses him of rape. Aileen chooses to lie to the police, and then her family begins to unravel slowly. Meanwhile, Sarah withdraws and is shunned by the tight-knit community.
Directed by Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer, and written by Shane Crowley from an idea he co-wrote with the film’s producer, Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly, God’s Creatures is about the influence of lies, the person ostracised by the community, and the irrevocable damage that the village is no longer, and might never be a safe space again for the victim. Its strength of presence is that the accused perpetuates the lie, and the person irrevocably hurt is the accuser.
The psychological drama is a critique of the human response under grim circumstances and how quickly a person’s identity transforms through the point-of-view of the community. God’s Creatures is not strictly interested in guilt or innocence, a dramatic tool. Instead, the emphasis is on choice and how social survival is behind our impulsive judgements and capacity to lie. If we can understand why a character makes the wrong choice, then that understanding creates an emotional and moral complication.
Aileen chooses to protect her son, but she lies to herself as much as she lies to the police. A mother can be forgiven for not wanting to believe her son is capable of rape, but her deceit is still unforgivable. It’s an act of betrayal against the young woman who is like family – best friends with her daughter Erin (Toni O’Rourke). Indeed, Aileen’s home has become Sarah’s second home. Like pride before a fall, God’s Creatures critiques the sentimentality of blood and the tribal mindset of loyalty above conscience.
The filmmakers are provocateurs asking the audience to decide how they feel about Aileen. Any understanding of her choice one might initially have can fade. She can’t dismiss what she instinctively knows – Brian’s guilty, and she was his alibi. The suspense in God’s Choice derives from whether her conscience, regardless of maternal instincts, will reassert itself.
It’s not until the halfway mark that the plot’s main thrust begins with the accusation. The filmmakers demand the audience’s patience. Witnessing the domestic lives underpins the silence that’s to follow. The storytelling subtlety slowly weaves together its themes and ideas. It seems things are taking place in the narrative’s dark shadows, so the crime slithers out late at night when Aileen is dragged down to the police station. There she’s asked a simple but complicated question. We never see what happened between Brian and Sarah that night, but we know to believe her.
The interesting choice in God’s Creatures is to marginalise Sarah when conventional wisdom would be to have the wronged woman be the story’s driving force. Instead, the filmmakers focus on Aileen and what becomes a complicated and immoral redemptive journey.
God’s Creatures becomes about the maternal as toxic, a violent assault upon Aileen’s sense of self. The film is aware of gender politics and meticulously plotted its characters’ positioning. It understands the need to marginalise Sarah, even if it should feel to the audience that a woman wronged is once again being ignored. Her suffering is the necessary provocation for its thematic intentions.
Marginalising Sarah is also effective if we consider the response of the men, the figurehead of whom is the pub landlord. After the incident, when Sarah and a friend turn up at the bar where Aileen and Brian are drinking, he says, “Not tonight, no. We retain the right to refuse service here, love. Do yourself a favour and go quietly.” Aileen sits uncomfortably, but Brian grins, empowered by the men that have just been laughing at a joke whose overheard punchline was, “Because she was an annoying bitch.” As Sarah leaves, she tells them they can all go to hell. The men laugh when the landlord jokes that they should not go following her now.
If Sarah is dehumanised by the experience, then femininity itself is. Aileen is a broken woman, Sarah is the woman wronged in an unstable romantic relationship, and Erin is a single mother. Masculinity is unreliable or savage in the small village. The violent sea and the fish caught and gutted are metaphors for this troubled gender conflict.
There’s something more insidious at play, however, in God’s Creatures. It preys upon masculinity and refutes any simple adversarial notion between the genders. Brian’s father, Con (Declan Conlan), stands as an example of masculine integrity, and domestic power is shared with Aileen. The conflict between these two generations of men brews, and eventually, their strength is tested through violence.
If Aileen’s story is one of immoral redemption, she enters this fray, and when Con fails to bring his son’s generation into line, the responsibility will be hers. It’s not only a generational concern, however. The attitudes of the men in the village are worrisome.
God’s Creatures reflects upon our primitive hearts and minds, where values of family and decency are laid siege to. Both men and women feel its wrath. God’s Creatures may be a psychological drama, but just below the surface, it’s a perturbing horror where violence empowers and is excused through the generations.
Sarah says, “We’re all God’s creatures in the dark.” To understand the film is to understand these words. If it’s lost in the dark and primitive shadows of human nature, the story shows an intellectual and philosophical inclination. Sarah is the philosopher of the drama, the poet who finds beauty in the ugliness.
The story hinges on the chemistry between Franciosi, Mescal, and Watson, and it’s a knife edge the actors must walk, where the emphasis is on the unspoken. They excel at conveying meaning without words. For Mescal, it’s a continuation of his role in Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun (2022), where his comfort in silent communication earned him an Oscar nomination. Here he and Franciosi play off of one another with a beautiful but unsettling rhythm – not as generic light and shadow, good and evil, but as impulse versus thoughtfulness in their existential despair.
God’s Creatures ends with a perfect collaboration between silence and words, poetic ideas and emotional angst. It honours the horror within the psychological drama, like swells beneath the water’s surface. We’re all God’s creatures scurrying around in the dark with the ghosts of the dead – our homes and places are graveyards. We live amongst invisible tombstones. Remembering the opening conversation between the women outside the factory, it was never ambition Sarah was referring to, but her willingness to let the tide carry her off somewhere new, to create what’s hers, instead of inheriting the past.
God’s Creatures played at the Glasgow Film Festival 2023, followed by a theatrical release from Volta Pictures in Ireland and Northern Ireland on 24 March 2023 and in the rest of the UK on 31 March 2023 via the BFI. The film was released theatrically in the US by A24 on 30 September 2022.