Synopsis: After multiple disastrous encounters and interactions with creepy men, Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is just about ready to give up on the dating scene altogether. That is, until she experiences a meet-cute with suave, charming doctor Steve (Sebastian Stan) in the produce aisle of a supermarket. Sparks fly, and before long, a real connection is formed, with Noa even accepting Steve’s invitation to take a romantic trip together. Why, it almost seems too good to be true …
1. If you’re even remotely interested in watching Fresh, read this first paragraph, then close the page and come back once you’re done. You’ll thank me later. While Fresh does not quite live up to its title (it’s more Fresh-ish than Fresh, if you know what I mean), it is very much worth your time. Fiendishly clever and diabolically savvy, Mimi Cave’s directorial debut features star-making performances from Daisy Edgar-Jones and Jonica T. Gibbs, and shows hitherto unknown talents of Sebastian Stan. Fresh is at once a taut thriller and a cutting glimpse into the issues faced by modern women, particularly in the dating scene. As a satire, it’s a little too blunt to be 100% effective, and has some narrative issues regarding structure and timeline. Nonetheless, it’s an intelligently planned and executed movie that constantly keeps the viewer guessing, with enough inventiveness and ingenuity to sustain it throughout its running time. Just don’t watch it while you’re eating.
Warning: Spoilers ahead
2. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get into the meat (get it?) of the movie. I’ve spoken before about how much I love a good bait-and-switch movie, and while Fresh is not quite that (it tips its hand very early), it definitely contains elements of it. The first half hour of the film would make an effective off-kilter rom-com, split nicely between Noa’s dating travails dealing with dick pics and ‘nice guys’ telling her to smile more, and her budding romance with Steve. However, Cave very cleverly uses a number of techniques designed to confuse and disorient the audience, with Noa and Steve’s first date shot in an impressionistic haze. Odd close-ups of mouths and eyes abound, the 180 degree rule (1) is gleefully broken, and bizarre split diopter shots (2) are used for seemingly benign conversations. Only when the master shot is finally revealed (and not starting the scene with it is already a rare move) is it made clear that the two characters are talking in front of a mirror, explaining the strange angles and compositions of the various shots. It’s all very stylish and slick, but more importantly, it not so subtly hints to the reader that there is something weird going on even in this seemingly charming rom-com style date. Add onto that the misgivings voiced by Noa’s best friend Mollie (Jonica T. Gibbs), and the filmmakers very successfully lend a sinister undertone to what would otherwise be a cute little indie romance.
3. All of this collides in one of the most effective opening credit reveals, taking place thirty (yes, thirty) minutes into the movie, as though to say ‘now the film really begins’. If you’ve read this far, I’m going to assume you’ve either seen the movie or don’t care about spoilers, so I’ll just say it. After the credits comes the revelation that Steve’s a cannibal, who imprisons women and cuts off flesh and limbs from their bodies for his and other rich cannibals’ consumption, while keeping said women alive to ensure the meat remains fresh (hey, that’s the name of the movie!). It’s a hell of a swerve, and one that propels Fresh into much darker territory. And while the film’s central metaphor is not subtle (women are literally turned into pieces of meat), it is certainly effective as an extension of the criticism of misogyny and patriarchy in the movie’s first half hour. Noa is not even a sex object any more, but carved up into component parts for the pleasure of men to consume and own. The filmmaking at this point also shifts accordingly, foregoing much of the first half hour’s trickery for a more nailed down, grounded style that treats Noa’s plight with seriousness and empathy. This then, makes the scenes featuring Steve dancing to music as he operates on his victims or carves up their meat feel all the more jarring. There is a cinematic pantheon of ‘psychos grooving to inappropriate pop music’ scenes, (3) and let’s just say that Fresh’s scenes are not anywhere close to that list. A good ‘psycho listens to pop music’ scene needs to have more than just the obvious contrast of ultraviolence and catchy music, but Fresh never quite moves past ‘hey look, the cannibal doctor is butchering meat to 80s synth-pop! Wacky, huh?’ These scenes could be very easily cut for time, and add very little to the overall film.
4. And speaking of unwanted comparisons, it is almost next to impossible not to juxtapose Fresh with a very obvious precursor, and it’s not just because a viewer’s first reaction to Noa entering Steve’s house would be to yell ‘Get Out‘! Unfortunately, this is not a comparison that does Fresh many favours, as Get Out is a superior film by almost every metric, particularly in how tightly constructed its narrative is. For a film without many narrative threads, Fresh has too many frayed ends. Take, for example, the reveal that Steve has a wife who is at bare minimum aware of his proclivities and at worst an active collaborator. This is a fine idea, but it’s introduced at the end of the second act, with nary enough time to establish her characterisation. It’s also very odd that this character is used as the ‘final boss’ of the film, and it seems almost too neatly reversed-engineered to set up Mollie’s (admittedly excellent) post-mortem one-liner. This is not the only part of the film’s final act that feels odd and clunky, with a number of moments where the characters act in bafflingly stupid ways that seem to exist just to keep the plot moving forward. These moments stand out even more considering how the film seems to take pride in swerving away from typical ‘idiot character in a horror movie’ moments, particularly with Mollie’s excellent detective work and a cheeky (and hilarious) parody of a key moment from Get Out. There are also some questions about the film’s timeline, as the two plotlines (Noa and Mollie’s) do not quite seem to sync up nicely, with one seeming to progress at a faster rate than the other. In general, I would say that the last act of the film is where it starts to lose steam, with the cleverness and tightness of the first two acts being pushed aside for all out carnage. While it is admittedly cathartic to watch the bad guys get their comeuppance in very bloody ways, I do very much wish that Fresh had continued to stick to averting instead of repeating well-worn tropes.
5. In terms of acting, Fresh serves up a Michelin-star worthy spread. Sebastian Stan is clearly having the time of his life swerving as far away from Bucky Barnes as he humanly can, and does a fine job of portraying both the swooning romantic lead Steve first appears to be and the insane cannibal chef he really is. There’s a sprightly mischief and facile charm that remains the same in both incarnations, which helps to sell the psychopathic nature of the character and how he uses his attractiveness to ensnare fresh meat. It’s not exactly on the high end of the scale for this kind of performance, (4) but with this film, I, Tonya, and Pam and Tommy, it’s nice to see Stan stretching his wings away from the gilded cage of the MCU. (5) On the supporting front, Jonica T. Gibbs adds a welcome dash of charisma to what might have otherwise been a typical ‘best friend’ supporting role, and it’s a microcosm of the good and bad of Fresh that Mollie is both a welcome subversion of that archetype while also behaving in an extremely idiotic manner at a key moment just so the plot can chug along. However, as good as everyone else is in, the film undoubtedly belongs to Daisy Edgar-Jones, whose coronation as Hollywood’s new it girl continues apace. Impressive as both the romantic comedy lead of the first half hour and the plucky survivor of the final act, Edgar-Jones delivers an excellent performance that feels extremely believable. Director Cave also clearly understands what an asset she has in her lead actress, with one vital scene conveyed through nothing more than a lengthy close-up of Edgar-Jones’s face as she slowly understands what she has gotten herself into. It’s a fantastic performance that grounds the entire film throughout, even in its shakier moments.
6. And while it is a pity that Fresh cannot quite maintain its momentum throughout its relatively brief running time, it does succeed more often than not. Cleverly satirising the way women are objectified in the (puke) ‘dating marketplace’, the film serves as a promising debut for director Mimi Cave and continues the ascendancy of lead star Daisy Edgar-Jones, with Sebastian Stan also being given a chance to shine. Even if it never quite reaches the sainted ground that other ‘social thrillers’ like Get Out, Burning or Parasite have reached in the past due to scripting and editing issues, Fresh at least manages to make it to base camp. At bare minimum, it will make you think twice the next time you eat a steak or swipe right.
Fresh is available to watch on Hulu (in the US) and Disney+ (outside the US)
- A basic filmmaking guideline that governs the spatial relationship between two characters in a scene. Essentially, the camera is always kept on one side of an imaginary line between the two characters such that one character is always frame right of the second character.
- A technique where half the shot is in deep focus while the other half is in shallow focus, hence keeping one subject in the foreground and one subject in the background in focus while everything else remains out of focus.
- List time! 1) Dean Stockwell and Dennis Hopper listening to ‘In Dreams’ in Blue Velvet (1986) 2) Michael Madsen listening to ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ in Reservoir Dogs (1991). 3) Christian Bale listening to ‘Hip to be Square’ in American Psycho (2000). 4) Stellan Skarsgard listening to ‘Orinoco Flow’ in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011). 5) Ted Levine listening to ‘Goodbye Horses’ in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Special note also goes to A Clockwork Orange (1971), which replaces pop music with classical music for a very similar effect.
- I mean, off the top of my head, Christian Bale, Anthony Hopkins and Mads Mikkelsen have given better performances in the very niche category of ‘cannibalistic serial killers’ alone, with the latter two admittedly playing the same character.
- Also, kudos to Stan for realising that he should work on more off-kilter projects rather than chasing traditionally ‘leading man’ roles. If only Jake Gyllenhaal and Colin Farrell had come to the same conclusion earlier in their careers, we would have been spared a lot of blandness in the mid to late 00s.