Whatever water we are born in is the one we must swim through. Most of us remain submerged and do what we can to simply keep swimming, but sometimes we surface. And sometimes we drown. In God’s Creatures we get to sink and soar through the waters of one Irish fishing village and their moment of reckoning.
This gothic Irish drama, out this Friday in the US but still without a distributor in the UK or Ireland, tells the story of a mother (Emily Watson) lying to protect her son (Paul Mescal), and a community taking sides and shattering as a consequence. There’s a tense beauty in both the routine of a working class coastal town and it’s immense potential to break cycles of silence and violence.
Mescal plays Brian, a darkly charming emigre returning home to bring his family’s oyster farm back to life. His mother, Aileen, has longed for her son to come home and his return has blinded her to any failings he might have. It’s not until he does something terrible that those fault lines begin to crack open and shatter everything. Brian is accused of sexually assaulting Sarah, played by Aisling Franciosi, a family friend and Aileen’s co-worker. Aileen instantly, almost instinctively, lies to give him an alibi.
How could she do that, or perhaps, how couldn’t she? Almost to a person, the community silences and ostracizes Sarah. It is as if she, not her rapist, has transgressed. And the brutal truth is that what Brian did is not actually that transgressive. Sexual assault is pervasive and it is rarely punished. The film is not based on any single incident from real life; how could it be? There are too many.
God’s Creatures does not preach or present simple endings. Instead, the film brings us beneath the water’s surface to ask: why do we uphold systems that fail women? These questions are not unique to Ireland; they are horribly universal. It’s telling that two American women, Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer, directed God’s Creatures. “When this script came our way, we were still angry about the Brett Kavanaugh hearings,” Davis told me, specifically citing a letter written and signed by 65 women defending Kavanaugh the day after allegations that he had sexually assaulted a teenager in the early 1980s.
Emily Watson knows the futility of looking for justice in a world that functions as ours does, but that does not stop her from questioning it. “If you’re a victim of sexual assault in the UK, there’s not much point in going to the police because the system doesn’t favor you,” she tells me. “How is that right?”
Sexual assault statistics are notoriously difficult to collect and collate, but Rainn (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the US’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, reports that in the US, one in six women are raped by men in their lifetime. Of every 1000 rapes, just 25 rapists ever face prison time. To put that another way, most men who sexually assault women are out and amongst us. They are our friends, our family, ourselves. There are no monsters in the sea, there are just people, just us.
God’s Creatures is a profoundly physical film, not simply an intellectual examination. There is blood and there are guts, cracks and slaps, crows at the window, black branches against a deep blue sky. The rain doesn’t let up, and the tide never stops. But there is no rape scene. Instead, we see the longer view, the context – this helps us to understand that the violence did not end on a pier in the middle of the night and did not begin there either.
Paul Mescal told me that this perspective intrigued him. “The central idea of the film is not the act, it is the aftermath, and it is the role that the community as a whole has, not only in facilitating the aftermath but facilitating the behavior and the toxic masculinity at its core.”
Aisling Franciosi thought a lot about the repercussions of her character’s decision to go to the police and to tell others in the community. She worked with a clinical psychologist to better understand both how to portray Sarah and how to understand the community’s reaction. “When Sarah comes forward and says what happened, for them to have to accept that would mean completely reassessing their reality.” She continues, “So they just choose … not to. But a victim doesn’t get that choice. Sarah has been a victim of something horrific, and her reality is shattered. But the distorted reality that everyone else chooses to still live in? She doesn’t have access to it.”
The story originated with the film’s producer Fodhla Cronin O'Reilly. A fisherman’s daughter, she grew up in a small village on the Kerry Coast, and her collaborator, screenwriter Shane Crowley, grew up a few miles away. Childhood friends, they were determined to tell stories about where they come from, knowing that Irish theater and fiction writers have long understood the power of repressed drama within small-town Ireland.
These filmmakers recognized the on-screen potential of the sea, the landscape, and the language of the place. Then, the story found the place. “We were hearing too many stories about women from neighboring villages making allegations of sexual assault, and then they were essentially excommunicated from their communities. And we found it so dumbfounding that these communities would treat these women that way.”
God’s Creatures is distributed in the US by A24 but has yet to find a distributor in Ireland and the UK despite its starry cast being critically acclaimed at Cannes earlier this year. Is it coming up against that old, stubborn silencing of women’s experiences? Cronin O'Reilly, the producer, is concerned. She explained that the entire process of making the film was more difficult than most. She originated the project more than 10 years ago. “The ironic thing is, the reason it took so long to make this is because of the subject matter and because women are at the helm.”
Mescal is frustrated too. We spoke in New York the day after the film played to a rapt audience at the Lincoln Center. “It’s anger making. What film are Irish distributors waiting to be made? What is the film that they’re waiting to say – now that’s the film we want to see about an examination of rape culture. I suppose there are other things at play, but it’s just got to happen. I think it will.”
Like every element of this film – from the foggy country mornings to the echoing clack of oysters on the factory line – the questions the filmmakers ask us are hyper-intentional. Holmer told me, “For us, the best cinema lives in the conversations that happen after. While first and foremost we are artists, we also pose questions because we believe change is possible. You have to live for that possible impossibility of change.” Mescal is cautiously optimistic. “I think as a nation, Irish people are moving away slowly from that repressed ‘don’t talk about, don’t feel it, say nothing to no-one’ thing. There’s a long way to go, but that’s my gut feeling on it.” Of course, this is bigger than Ireland and the specific blend of Catholicism, patriarchy, and colonization that created our own cycles of intergenerational violence.
Dr Courtney Ahrens is a psychology professor at California State University and researches the implications of speaking up about sexual assault, writing, “Rape survivors who speak out about their assault experiences are often punished for doing so. They are subjected to negative reactions, even from support providers. These negative reactions may thereby serve a silencing function, leading some rape survivors to stop talking about their experiences to anyone at all.” She asks, “How, then, can we expect women to break the silence about the very experience used to reinforce powerlessness? We cannot expect them to, but the amazing thing is that despite the often dismal consequences, they continue to do exactly that.”
Women have been oppressed through time and across continents. The striking thing is not only the violence but the relentless resistance to that violence. Families in Uttar Pradesh are on the streets, mourning two teenage sisters who were raped and murdered in the most recent incident of sexual violence to rock India. They are demanding change. In cities across Iran, women are burning their headscarves and cutting their hair to protest the killing of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained by the morality police, who enforce the Islamic Republic’s misogynistic dress code. Here in the United States, a gender class-action lawsuit against Goldman Sachs, one the bank has been trying to prevent ever reaching the courts, is finally headed to a federal trial in New York.
Some people never stop fighting against the power structures we all live within. God’s Creatures is part of that fight. A film like this strengthens those voices that dare to speak, filling the silence with something closer to the truth.