Note: The following contains spoilers for “God’s Creatures” and a discussion about sexual assault.
“God’s Creatures” directors Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer felt an urgency to investigative the unspoken normalcies surrounding sexual assault in A24’s latest psychological drama.
“There were these questions that the script was posing that felt like questions we had been asking about how you negotiate these unspoken ‘normalcies’ that needs to be questioned,” Holmer told TheWrap during a recent interview. “It felt urgent to us to make.”
Set in an Irish fishing village, “God’s Creatures” reunites Aileen, played by Emily Watson, with her son, Brian, played by Paul Mescal, who left the area as a boy to move to Australia, and comes home a man seeking fresh start. Aileen is elated by the return of her handsome son and compromises her morals ever so slightly to ensure a smooth transition for Brian. The tides change too rapidly, however, when Aileen fabricates an alibi to police officers when Brian is accused of a violent crime.
“It completely floors her and takes her by surprise,” Watson told TheWrap. “But it is an animal instinct that kicks in and in that moment, she just goes, ‘nope, he was with me.’ She doesn’t flicker; she doesn’t waver.”
After the pair leave the police station assured that Brian will be protected by Aileen’s lie, Aileen asks Brian what really happened after she left the bar with Brian and family friend Sarah, played by Aisling Franciosi, reminiscing about childhood memories. Brian spirals at her inquiry, suggesting that he should move back to Australia in a move that Watson calls “deeply manipulative.”
“He knows she would be broken by it,” Watson said. “She would be utterly bereft and that her light would go out and she can’t countenance it,” she said, noting that Aileen then concedes and backs away, although this agreement goes unspoken.
“It’s people who don’t speak their feelings,” she said, adding that “their whole family has a sense of an undercurrent of violence that is never really investigated or spoken about.”
Filming on the “hypnotically beautiful” coast of Donegal, Ireland underscored the mythic isolation of the town for Watson, as she noted the location helped her “understand why it would be that somebody felt that that was the center of the universe, that that life was really rich and full.”
“We just saw this lush and vibrant and dynamic landscape,” Holmer added. “These settings enabled us to reflect the internal state of our characters, and … there’s a shifting tone or quality as the movie goes on.”
Although Aileen has now safeguarded her relationship with Brian, she struggles with her actions when “lives start to be destroyed,” and she starts to lose her daughter, Erin, who is close friends with Sarah, according to Watson.
For the directors, Erin, who is the mother to a newborn child, is the “moral compass” of the film and “a reminder of the generation that is coming,” adding, “She has already broken the cycles in the in a significant way. We talk about different ways to survive, different ways to approach change … Erin chooses to stay in this place and raise a son in a in a different way.”
“There’s a real intergenerational divide between the younger people going, ‘Can you not see what’s in front of your nose?’” Watson added, noting that Aileen “has never had a conversation with Brian about consent,” marking a “gaping hole” in how he should have been raised.
The actress also notes the film’s depiction of the aftermath of sexual assault reflects worldwide situations in which the community “rejects and ostracizes the woman who’s been attacked.” “Aileen’s decisions are at the heart of that,” Watson said.
By the climax of the film, Aileen is in “perpetual torment,” according to Watson, as her guilt pours over and leads her to a pivotal moment where she puts Brian’s fate in God’s hands, reminiscent of her prayer for Brian to return home that was answered at the beginning of the film.
“It’s simultaneously about how Aileen is seeing her son in a new light, but also how she’s seeing Sarah,” Holmer said, noting that her gaze on Sarah is the real change. “Once she really starts to hear and witness Sarah’s pain, and come to accept that truth, there is no other option than to walk away from the life that she was building, so it’s really through her acceptance of Sara’s truth that Aileen’s change comes in the end.”
While Erin decides to stay and shape a promising future for her child, Sarah chooses to claim her space by leaving the village, and the film closes with a long take of Sarah driving away from the town, glancing in the rearview in a “reflective goodbye” while also looking ahead to the future.
“By holding on that shot, by giving it the right amount of time, we wanted to say this ghost is going to come with her wherever she goes, but that, with time, with distance, Sara is headed towards her own future, creating her own path, her own narratives, her own legacy,” Holmer said.
“She extracts herself with great sadness from the situation and then leaves and goes, takes her freedom and leaves Aileen with ghosts,” Watson said, underscoring that Aileen will be haunted and in pain for the rest of her days.
“God’s Creatures” is now playing in theaters and available on PVOD.