'God's Creatures' Asks the Difficult Questions About Sexual Assault

'God's Creatures' Asks the Difficult Questions About Sexual Assault

Amongst theologians, "God’s creatures" refers to the idea of treating all living beings — animal and human alike — with the same compassion and kindness that we afford our own. A lesson in equality and mutual consideration, this tenet teaches us to respect all of His creations, even if there’s an inherent power imbalance.

In the case of God’s Creatures, directors Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer have seemingly repurposed this concept into poignant commentary, concerned with the complexities of a man-made power structure lying at the intersection of gender politics and intergenerational trauma. It’s an allegorical reflection upon our willful ignorance of a deep-seated problem that is simultaneously ubiquitous and singular, as well as something we are still a long way from solving.

A brooding psychological drama that leans heavily upon Irish gothic tradition, God’s Creatures is a study of the social dynamics inside a tight-knit community, whose members live in an isolated fishing village haunted by its own quiet desolation. There’s an omnipresent feeling of stagnancy that hangs over the town — a paralyzing sort of heaviness laden with repressed guilt, shame and the suffocating burden of everything left unsaid. But the practical, hard-working residents here are preoccupied with self-preservation, resistant to change as people whose identities are inextricably linked to this village, its people and the fishing industry that’s sustained their way of life for generations.

And so they instinctively protect their own and reserve their trust for those closest to them; a fierce fealty with an ugly side that’s put on full display once Sarah Murphy (Aisling Franciosi) accuses former flame Brian O’Hara (Paul Mescal) of rape.

"The script is so brilliant and a really clever way of proposing different questions about sex, sexual politics, and gender politics and assault," Franciosi said of Shane Crowley’s thought-provoking screenplay. "[It’s about] how we react and frequently ignore its occurrence."

After all, forced dominance over another person has always been the driving force behind rape and sexual assault. But less talked about are the patriarchal norms that use intimidation to keep victims silent, not to mention social pressures that also scare others into taking the easy way out by remaining quiet and complicit in the victim’s suffering.

"When communities choose not to believe [victims], it’s often people choosing to stay in the reality that they're comfortable with. But the victims don't get that choice... They don’t get to choose not to believe what happened to them," Franciosi said. "I just think it's important to remember that we can choose to not live in the distorted reality and actually choose to change."

So in an attempt to focus on the structures and dynamics that perpetuate rape culture, the film focuses on Brian’s mother, Aileen (Emily Watson), who’s initially delighted by the sudden return of her prodigal son after seven years in Australia. However, her joy is soon replaced by agonizing internal conflict when Sarah’s allegation rips apart the village’s intergenerational culture of silence, forcing Aileen to grapple between her own suppressed trauma, her unconditional love for Brian and whether her maternal instinct is more powerful than her conscience. And it’s a difficult, complex and complicated situation that God’s Creatures bravely attempts to examine, even though most still struggle to talk openly about this historically taboo topic with the care and consideration it deserves.

"[Sexual assault] is an epidemic. It's not just in Ireland," Mescal said, touching on the challenges of "discussing something in a way that feels dynamic and true to the actual society that we're living in now while still being sensitive and not triggering. It’s a hard balance to strike."

As Mescal recalled, the experience of playing Brian was "definitely a bit frightening," especially as someone whose internal views are "very far removed" from his character’s. Even so, he believes that an actor’s job isn’t about "judging," but "presenting a truthful depiction of character, regardless of its political or social connotations."

"I think it's important to let the audience judge, and I'll just try and do as accurate a job as I can of presenting somebody who is familiar to me,” he said, explaining that his goal was to further the film’s message by depicting Brian as someone who "feels familiar to people."

"It was about trying to make him as human as possible, so that it really requires an audience to interrogate and think. Not just immediately go, 'Oh, he's the Other,'" Mescal continued. "How do we start a conversation about when [this starts to] apply to you. Does he look like your brother? Does he look like your family?"

Additionally, Mescal said that it’s also worth questioning our own handling of these issues, noting that real change can only happen when "you get out of the vacuum of preaching to your friends about your own values" and arguing that we need to figure out new ways to approach the subject, especially when dealing with people like the villagers from the film.

"How do you reach rural communities? How do you instill and re-educate without making them feel [different from] you?," Mescal said, referencing our increasingly polarized society. And, as he said, this can facilitate an extremely toxic "we're better than you" mindset that relies on black-and-white binaries and moralizing rhetoric, which makes it so that the real underlying message is presented in a such an alienating way that it will never end up reaching the people it really needs to.

"I don't think that's a dynamic which shifts people's opinions. It just isolates them. [The community in this film] is a great example of that," he continued, with Franciosi adding that social media needs to discuss these things "in a more holistic way rather than from a pedagogic pedestal."

After all, both actors agreed that God’s Creatures is a more realistic depiction of how many people currently handle sexual assault. It’s painfully honest, as demonstrated by Aileen’s initial instinct to protect Brian, with this brutal yet nuanced depiction of humans’ flawed nature and moral failings alluding to the notion that it’s hard to always make the "right" choice. Because according to Mescal, at "the heart of the film" is the idea that there are times where there is no real hero or good guy, arguing that the movie helps us "understand why [Aileen] acts the way she does," because of her deep personal connection to the assailant.

"It’s tiny, little details that lead us to this point where Brian gets to live in his mind and, in Aileen’s mind, [he’s held] to a different set of standards and a different set of rules because structures in society have allowed that to happen,” as Mescal explained. "But that not only informs Brian's relationship to women and what he does to Sarah, but it also informs Aileen’s in this misogynistic landscape."

However, Franciosi said that while God’s Creatures acknowledges the difficulties of the perpetrator being "a brother or son or friend," it’s not about "humanizing" them or "excusing" their behavior. Rather, it’s about the way these "human beings have come from this structure that has allowed them to live with a different set of standards that we have to question," which highlights a need "to start talking about gender and sexual politics way earlier."

"I think as a society, we have to go beyond the act of this is a horrible thing, because there's no ambiguity as to whether this is okay or not," Franciosi said before asking, "But why don't we now try and deconstruct why this is continuously happening?"

Welcome to "Sex with Sandra," a column by Sandra Song about the ever-changing face of sexuality. Whether it be spotlight features on sex work activists, deep dives into hyper-niche fetishes, or overviews on current legislation and policy, "Sex with Sandra" is dedicated to examining some of the biggest sex-related discussions happening on the Internet right now.

Photos courtesy of A24