I can absolutely understand people not responding well to the second feature from the writing/directing team of David Dastmalchian and Collin Schiffi, who last made the bleak and haunting Animals, which tracked a young couple’s journey through drug addiction and borrowed heavily from Dastmalchian’s personal life (he also co-starred). Their latest work is All Creatures Here Below, and it’s a doozy—and probably less based on the actor’s experiences while still managing to feel deeply personal, almost invasive.
This time around Dastmalchian (Ant-Man, Blade Runner 2049) plays Gensan, who lives with Ruby (Karen Gillan, Guardians of the Galaxy) on the brink of complete poverty in downtown Los Angeles. She makes money collecting recyclables, while he works at a pizza place. Both of them seem a bit unfocused (or maybe too focused) on their day-to-day living, and she probably has some actual mental concerns that some might call “slow.” She waits nervously for him to come home every day, and part of their nightly ritual is him calming her down about whatever it was that over-stimulated her during the day. He’s as much a caretaker as a lover and companion. One of the things she’s fixated on is having a child; she was recently fired from her cleaning job for getting too close to the kids in the building where she worked, something she is clearly not legally allowed to do because of some unknown infraction.
Gensan is also laid off when his store is designated to be closed down, and he takes his final paycheck and gambles it away, hoping to make enough money for he and Ruby to live comfortably for a while. But when the cock fight he has gambled on is broken up by police, he makes a rash decision that gets him his money back and then some but also puts both Ruby and him in serious danger. As he prepares for the two of them to leave town in a hurry, she also does something impulsive (these are people for whom consequences don’t really factor into their decision making), stealing the baby girl living next door who is momentarily left unsupervised in the apartment by her mother. By the time Gensan realizes there’s an infant in the car with them, it’s too late to turn around, and Ruby is so attached to the baby, she probably wouldn’t let him anyway. This is a movie that fills you with a sinking feeling in your stomach almost for the duration, as this strangely connected couple makes a series of terrible moves, all of which lead to more terrible moves.
While watching All Creatures Here Below, I couldn’t shake the Of Mice and Men vibe at the core of the relationship. It’s moving to watch Ruby play at being a mother, but she clearly knows nothing about a child’s needs. At one point, she attempts to breast feed the baby and Gensan has to explain to her that that’s not how it works, and she’s not sure she believes him because she’s so desperate to make it happen. Their road trip/escape puts them on a journey to their hometown of Kansas City, and when Ruby realizes this, she is extremely hesitant to go there, not wanting to face the terrors that that place held for her growing up. Gensan seems less concerned because, once again, he has a plan and doesn’t see the remotest possibility that it might not pan out, the way most of us might. There are moments in this movie that are so raw and painful that you almost want to turn away from the screen because you feel like you’re hearing things that weren’t meant for your ears.
As with Animals, Schiffi’s direction impresses. He has clearly learned from the masters of high drama, from Cassavetes to Malick, and there’s an intense desperation in just about every moment of All Creatures Here Below that makes us uneasy but also quite eager to see where these two will end up. There are moments when I was hopeful for their extraction from this situation, and other times when I was convinced something tragic was about to take place—sometimes within the same sequence. There’s an air of danger to the proceedings, but it’s laced with compassion and the desire to set things straight and just put everybody back where they were, which is, of course, impossible. Thus, the cycle of desperation continues. This is a movie whose story—and even a couple of reveals I was not expecting—will stick with me for many weeks to come; it’s impossible to shake, and I’m not sure I want to just yet.
The film opens today for a weeklong run exclusively at Facets Cinémathèque.
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