Paul Mescal’s past 12 months have been scorching thanks to Aftersun and Carmen, but Foe—his second feature at this year’s New York Film Festival, alongside All of Us Strangers—puts an end to that hot streak. That’s no fault of the actor, who delivers a romantically tormented performance that recalls Cat on a Hot Tin Roof-era Paul Newman, and who shares a sweltering chemistry with his co-star Saoirse Ronan. Rather, the culprit is a sci-fi story that spirals about in circles on its way to a predictable and underwhelming twist and an even less satisfying conclusion.
Written by director Garth Davis and Iain Reid, based on the latter’s 2018 novel of the same name, Foe (in theaters Oct. 6) is set on a 2065 Earth that’s been ravaged by droughts, famines, and weather-related calamities. Radio broadcasts provide the apocalyptic details in short, expository bursts, suggesting that Henrietta (Ronan) and Junior (Mescal) are living through the End Times. Residing on a Midwest farm that’s been in Junior’s family for generations, they’re a married couple at the edge of the world, as well as one whose rapport is as prickly as the dry, barren trees that dot the landscape. Theirs is a love among—and of—the ruins, and Henrietta’s despair is the first note struck by Davis’ film, as she showers and stares at herself in a three-paneled mirror while, in narration, she muses that she’s lost a part of herself and fears never being able to reclaim it.
Henrietta works as a diner waitress and Junior is employed at a high-tech agricultural plant where he tends to chickens on an assembly line, and their mundane and stifling existence is interrupted by the arrival one evening of Terrance (Aaron Pierre), an envoy from the Outermore company that helps humans escape the failing planet by moving them off-world. Terrance informs Junior that he’s been selected in a random lottery to be relocated to a self-sufficient space station known as the “Installation,” and when Junior instinctively balks at this separation from his wife and home, the corporate emissary sells it as a “special and unique” chance to be a “better version of yourself.” Henrietta also seems unhappy about this, although from the moment Terrance shows up, she behaves strangely—so strangely, in fact, that it’s immediately apparent that some secret is being kept or some ruse perpetrated.