God's Creatures: Paul Mescal convinces as entitled bad seed in tense Irish drama

Paul Mescal in God's Creatures
Paul Mescal in God's Creatures
Paul Mescal and Emily Watson in God's Creatures
Paul Mescal and Emily Watson in God's Creatures

GOD'S CREATURES (15, 100mins) Drama. Starring: Paul Mescal, Emily Watson, Aisling Franciosi.

Directed by Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer.

PAUL Mescal may have returned from the Oscars empty-handed, but with his stock currently at an all-time high, the Maynooth star can take comfort in the certainty that his legion of devotees will be flocking to cinemas this week to watch him play against type in God's Creatures.

That's where the 'comfort' ends, however, because this Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer-directed drama is a grim slow-burner laden with guilt, desperation and despair that will be triggering for anyone who has experienced sexual assault. 

Set in the mid-90s (at least judging by the cars, clothing, ubiquitous smoking and lack of digital devices), God's Creatures centres on an enigmatic prodigal son who unexpectedly returns to the weather-lashed fishing village in the west of Ireland which he abandoned for a better life in Australia.

We quickly learn that Brian (Mescal) has been incommunicado with his doting mam Aileen (Emily Watson) for several years, so the fact that he makes a sudden reappearance just as the tight-knit coastal community is reeling from a tragedy might strike the superstitious as something of a bad omen.

Sure enough, life starts to get progressively worse for many of the village residents just as soon as Brian gets his Wellys back under the kitchen table, much to the chagrin of his father, Con (Declan Conlon).

Paul Mescal in God's Creatures
Paul Mescal in God's Creatures

Father and son have a chilly relationship that's the polar-opposite of the over-familiarity between Brian and his mother. It's revealed that Brian quit the family's oyster farming operation, leaving his dad and granddad Paddy (Lalor Roddy) to struggle on in his absence until the latter's ill health shut it down altogether - thus breaking a generational cycle which is mirrored throughout the village, though split along patriarchal lines.

Boys grow up wanting to be men who fish, joining their fathers and grandfathers on the boats and occasionally dying when they mis-judge the tides: it's the women's lot to process the men's daily catches in the local fish factory, nest with them, pick up after them and then eventually mourn them - all while enduring whatever toxic masculinity comes their way.

Indeed, there may be other, much darker reasons for Brian's Irish goodbye, and the Shane Crowley-written film teases at them for much of its glacial 100min run-time. By the time things eventually come to a head with an accusation made to the police, it's already abundantly clear that a blind eye has long been turned to troubling activities taking place behind closed doors in this town.

“We have to be seen to be doing our jobs” is a telling line uttered by one friendly local Guard, who is of course on first-name terms with everyone, including the accused and their parents.

Paul Mescal in God's Creatures
Paul Mescal in God's Creatures

There are fine performances to savour here, in particular from Mescal, frighteningly convincing and familiar as a macho mammy’s boy whose utter sense of entitlement to the world and everything/one in it has been culturally instilled, facilitated and excused to disastrous end.

Emily Watson skilfully navigates the role of a mother required to undergo a gradual reckoning with a terrible truth - even if her eventual drastic course of action slightly beggars belief, while Aisling Franciosi excels as Sarah, a young woman determined to break a cycle of violence she’s almost literally inherited from her parents.

The film-makers strive hard to create an atmosphere leaden with secrets, stifled hopes and claustrophobic dread, a pounding/droning score, lots of rain-lashed scenery and an abundance of dead fish helping to make this damned village a place we can’t wait to escape from.

A final, lingering close-up of one key character set to Lankum’s startling take on The Wild Rover leaves the audience with a smidgen of hope for the future - but by God, it’s a long, hard time coming.


:: God's Creatures is showing at QFT Belfast from Friday March 24, tickets and times via queensfilmtheatre.com