Much of what makes A24’s moody drama God’s Creatures so quietly devastating is owed to what’s shown rather than spoken. The film stars Emily Watson and Paul Mescal as mother Aileen and son Brian, whose isolated, tight-knit fishing village on the Irish coast is lovely and decrepit, shot with a tender but unflinching gaze by directors Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer. Many of the film’s best shots are of nothing but the rolling tide, the crumbling cliffs, and the rows of rusted oyster cages tangled in seaweed and brine. God’s Creatures is a film you can smell, not the least of which is thanks to close-ups of the fishery where Aileen works as a supervisor, a gentle but firm mother hen to a clan of mostly female employees.
Her life is balanced, if not exactly happy, when Brian appears at the tragic funeral of a boy, an oyster farmer who drowned when the tide rose too fast. (Most of the local workers don’t learn how to swim, it’s explained; such lessons are considered bad luck.) We learn he’s finally returned home from a years-long trip to Australia, where he’s lived without any contact with his family. Despite the joy radiating from Aileen as she finally holds her boy, too many hurts and betrayals linger, and Davis and Holmer allow these to fester within the film’s ominous, breathtaking score and sound design. It’s not exactly clear what evil is about to take place, only that something in this idyllic landscape is tainted.
Mescal is exactly as magnetic as you might remember from his much-lauded screen debut in Hulu’s Normal People, but as Brian there’s a new tension to his gait, a swelling in the set of his shoulders. These small character choices of Mescal’s crystalize when it’s revealed that one of Aileen’s co-workers, Sarah (Aisling Franciosi), has accused Brian of sexual assault.
Aileen’s immediate instinct is to protect him, to lie on behalf of her boy, and once the trap is set Brian is quick to trap her in it. Mescal’s charming but cagey performance is as much a lure for the audience as for Aileen herself, and Watson is breathtaking to watch as the cycle of furies and fears and doubts warp her countenance.
When, at last, the film’s climax arrives and Aileen makes the unthinkable choice not to save her son from a rapidly rising tide, Watson knows the responsibility her performance carries. It is impossible to believe a mother would do this; it is equally impossible not to be convinced of Watson as Aileen, so haunted as to be resolute.
To understand the nuances of this choice—and of the weight God’s Creatures carries as an artifact of its time—ELLE.com spoke with Watson and Mescal about developing a mother-son dynamic, and wading into the water together.
I want to know, first and foremost, why this particular project stood out to you both.
Watson: It was such a strong script. It was so unusually, beautifully written, and so specific to the place and felt so authentic. But it also had the sense of being a Greek tragedy and it’s about a very hot topic. So I was in from about page 3.
Mescal: There was no kind of internal deliberation. Once I finished it, it wasn’t like, “Should I do this? Should I not?” It was apparent from the first reading of it. I felt like it was dealing with a topic that I was interested in, and discussed in a way that I feel like is challenging and accessible at the same time. You know? With that material, how do you make this not triggering for an audience but force them to lean in and ask difficult questions of themselves, and I think the script navigated that perfectly.
Part of what I think is so entrancing about the script is what it leaves unsaid, and how the two of you are able to communicate without words. But that’s a challenging thing to do without a particular connection between yourselves as actors. So tell me how you developed that dynamic.
Watson: I think, it’s the kind of family where if they actually said what they thought, what they felt and what they meant, they would explode. Because they are just bound together by those very strong, atomic ties. But they don’t emotionally articulate or psychologically articulate. They would probably fall apart if they were. There’s intergenerational violence built in…We were able to be very aware of that and play that. But also we had a very strong sense of the joy of this, the mother-son relationship.
Mescal: Yeah. And it’s also the joy of doing it with somebody who is as talented as Emily is. The work, I think, is very serious, but I think you go about it in a light way, which allows it to be kind of dexterous and fun. It kind of reminds me of forming an opinion on acting in drama school. The principles are still the same; I just think the stakes become higher.
Watson: It was interesting working with Paul because he’s in a stage where he’s immensely curious and inquisitive about the process. He may be brilliantly talented and doesn’t need help, but was often asking me questions in a way I hadn’t really talked about—or that I hadn’t really kind of crystallized or realized.
We see that really deep, authentic connection between the two of you from the first moment you’re on screen together, when Brian arrives unexpectedly at the funeral and Aileen is so startled and overjoyed to see him. The whole film is infused with the balance between those two emotions.
Watson: You absolutely have to, as an audience, invest in that relationship. You have to enjoy that [first meeting]. It’s an overwhelming sense of coming alive for her, of suddenly: This is the light back in her life. Everything feels like it’s going right. It’s reviving the oyster farm; the family’s back together. But even in those first moments when I say, “Jesus Christ, Brian,” there are unanswered questions hanging in the air, the hurt of seven years. Where were you? Why haven’t we heard from you? I didn’t know where you were. And also the knowledge that, if you ask too many questions, he’s gone.
Paul, how did you toe the line with Brian, knowing he needed to be approachable and affable and familiar, but also to have this glint of a dark side?
Mescal: Well, I think it’s… If you removed sexual assault from the film, I wanted that to be—I know this sounds vague and obvious—but I wanted it all to make sense. I wanted you to feel like Brian can go in any direction, up until the point that he goes past the point of no return. So it’s like: How can you make an audience feel sympathy for somebody who goes away to Australia and has a rough time and doesn’t have the emotional capacity to talk about that? And then what is it about his sense of entitlement and his relationship with women that makes him so hard? And I think that was one of the main reasons that I wanted to do the film. I really wanted somebody who commits an act of sexual violence to look familiar to people. I didn’t want it to be a kind of villainous, creepy, obvious template. I wanted it to be somebody’s son, somebody’s friend, somebody who we recognize as “good” in the world. Statistically, people who commit [sexual violence] know the victim and the victim knows them.
Watson: It’s interesting you’re talking about entitlement because Aileen is absolutely complicit in your sense of entitlement.
Mescal: For sure.
Watson: Not just in the lies she tells, but in the, “Yeah, you want the oysters? Have some money.” You are the son. You’re entitled.
Mescal: Well, she facilitates.
Watson: You are entitled to everything you want that can be yours.
Mescal: And [you see this play out] in that scene in the car after the police station, where you see the politics of their whole relationship. He knows that his mother’s on the hook, and he manipulates her. He’s like, “If you don’t get in behind me and support me and love me, I’ll fuck off to Australia.” And he knows.
Watson: Within a couple of minutes there are two moments of what seem like decisions, but are not decisions. One is the lie. I am an animal, and I cannot do anything except go, “He was with me.” And then when he says, “[If you tell the truth] I’m going to leave.” That would break me. That would be breaking the atom. I can’t countenance that either. So then I’m immediately into a lose-lose situation.
It’s interesting, then, how much her mindset transforms over the course of the film—to the point that she stops defending Brian entirely. We’ll get to that, but first and foremost, when do you think that transition takes place in her mind? Is it gradual or a singular inciting incident?
Watson: I think she immediately starts to call into question who she is. Because she’s always seen herself as kind of a pillar of the community. She’s a leader amongst the women. She’s a supervisor. She looks after people; she’s kind. And then suddenly she’s in this situation where she’s destroying her life, and that’s like a crack inside her.
There’s a moment in [a scene in which a blessing of the boats take place], when Sarah’s standing there singing this religious song, and everybody’s singing around her. Just like, “Who are we? We’re inhabiting this moral structure that has a black hole at the center of it.” And then I think at the funeral, when Sarah spits, it’s another animal moment [for Aileen]. “Don’t fucking touch her.” That makes me realize what side I’m on.
So let’s discuss that pivotal scene at the end, when Aileen is in the boat and Brian is trying to get to her, desperately trying to reach the boat. How many takes of this moment did you end up doing?
Mescal: The practicalities of that day were… It was tough.
Watson: We did it over two days, I think.
Mescal: Not many takes. [We were] chasing the tide.
Watson: And also our body temperatures were dropping, and we had to get out of the water.
Mescal: The doctors thought we were hypothermic—
Watson: If you got water in your waders, you were really screwed… Trying to maintain the emotional stuff, the world integrity of it and deal with all the physical things was [challenging].
What was going through your head in that scene? How did Aileen get to that point, where she makes this terrible choice, one that I’d imagine most mothers would think impossible?
Watson: We talked about it very specifically, me and Saela, about it being another moment of prayer. One of my biggest questions from the beginning was, How does a mother do that?
And we came to the answer, really, that it’s that moral construct, which allows you to surrender. “I surrender this moment to God. It’s God’s decision. I’m not going to rescue him. God can decide.” It’s abdicating that responsibility, but I don’t think—it’s not a conscious, thought-through, rational decision. I mean, my overriding feeling was, Am I about to die?
It just felt so extreme. There’s something about it that felt so fucking extreme. And in a way, you just have to go through the mechanics of it. There was a guy underwater lifting me up, and then there’s six people around you, leaning over you, and it all is very artificial. And then maintaining the emotional reality amongst all of that is quite challenging. But we sort of protected ourselves enough to keep that.
Mescal: [To Watson] I think one of your big teachings to me was, How do you protect that? The little kernel of creativity or whatever that word is.
Mescal: Purity or inspiration. Or even just protecting the quiet that I think is sometimes required, that I think [to Watson] you are the master of, and kind of allowed us as a group of young actors to watch. And I thought it was really something that I will carry.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Lauren Puckett-Pope is an associate editor at ELLE, where she covers news and culture.