Sebastian Stan and Daisy Edgar-Jones give their best in a gory variation on captivity horrors in Sundance thriller Fresh (2022).
Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) has little luck finding her second half online, as blatantly portrayed in the opening scene of a dinner date gone wrong. Having to deal with just another self-absorbed moron, whose manners are depressingly non-existent, Noa decides it is about time she stopped going on random meet-ups looking for quick wins in the love game. True love cannot be forced, right?
And yet miracles happen. Like the finest romantic comedy trope – deployed with full intention by director Mimi Cave – Noa is approached by a charming stranger in a supermarket called Steve (Sebastian Stan). He’s got the talk, and she’s game for trying the old-school way of dating, because – why not? A few messages and dates later, Mimi Cave lets the leading duo develop softly sweet chemistry, and I could see the alternative version of Fresh (2022) in which Steve happens to be a decent guy. However, that couldn’t be farther than what he is.
Noa’s new life is filled with bucolic moments, so she keeps her guard down – quite literally so since she practices boxing with her best friend. Flexing muscles doesn’t help much though when the butterflies in the stomach are replaced by the inexplicable fear when she wakes up with a chain attached to her hand. The same charming tone that she succumbed to, now announces a gruesome plan and the true identity of her new boyfriend.
What if people aren’t always who they seem to be, asks Cave. What if love-on-demand is just as dangerous as meeting strangers doing the same grocery rounds? While films, books, and article headlines all taught us the truth – that indeed, people are deadly creatures – the director wanted her debut to stand for more than another captivity thriller. Starting early with the threats of using dating apps – a common criticism these days – the director evokes fear of meeting strangers in general. It’s hard to judge Noa, for Steve’s facade is meticulously structured to elicit trust. Yet the detail that makes the premise click is the complete lack of signs that things may go south at some point.
Frankly, Sundance 2022 line-up has vivisected the predator-prey dynamism on many fronts. Masked predators whose gentlemanly manners are nothing but bait for fragile women appeared in many disguises – a white-knight for a troubled teenager in Palm Trees And Power Lines (2022), a ghost from the past in Resurrection (2022), or a disturbing creep who follows around the protagonist of Watcher (2022). All are scary in their own, mysterious ways and laser-focused on maximizing their pleasure, control, or benefit. However, contrary to all of these films, Fresh (2022) approaches the subject with biting cynicism and zaniness that’s closer at heart to Quentin Tarantino than deadpan drama films.
That strategy checks out only partially. The director balances comedy and thriller quite organically. She has obviously done her homework analyzing dozens of successful modern thrillers. And there is a thorough understanding of how to toy with viewers’ expectations, as seen in Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), but instead of baiting us with a sci-fi premise, we get a full-fledged romance. Cave meticulously crafts a captivating love story, but one that yet has to reveal its creepy underscore. Let the couple dance, kiss, and flirt, because not only does it lull our instincts, but allows Sebastian Stan and Daisy Edgar-Jones to build characters that will morph, adapt and open up to each other as the story develops.
Sebastian Stan mesmerizes as the sleazy charmer who deals with a grisly profession that he seems to overly enjoy. It’s easy to notice how this performance is destined to be compared to Christian Bale’s in American Psycho (2000), for Stan gets the double-life idea with all the smirks, winks, and charisma that covers the other, nasty part. No-brakes attitude pays off, even if the character development fails to do the actor justice in the big picture.
On the other side of the fence stands Edgar-Jones as Noa. As the protagonist, Edgar-Jones spreads her wings, creating a portrayal of a victim who goes from looking death in the eyes to accepting it with a make-the-best-out-of-it attitude. I consider this a self-conscious middle-finger-up sign to all the boring and one-dimensional individuals populating most horror films. Noa seemingly agrees to the situation, while seeking ways to survive based on more than physicality. In that sense, I see Split (2016) as a point of reference, a film that greatly benefited from Anya Taylor-Joy’s equally heartfelt role. And where Stan’s performance begins to dilute and seem predictable, Edgar-Jones only gets better and more calculated – a true hero born in fear and shaped by the journey of borderline self-exploration.
Entertaining roles solidify the writing that comes across as largely influenced by Jordan Peele’s horror hit Get Out (2017). Noa resembles Daniel Kaluuya’s character in many ways – she’s mostly alone in this world, a shy outsider pushed into a situation of no return. Moreover, Mimi Cave borrows the idea of a comedic-relief friend too – here portrayed by Noa’s tougher-than-Chuck-Norris friend Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs) – who finds her friend’s trail when the lack of notifications becomes rather suspicious. Frankly, Mollie’s detective work meets the most unbelievably dull plotholes that contradict the perfectionist silhouette of Steve.
After reaching the halfway-there point of Fresh (2022), I couldn’t shake off the feeling that the script has been unevenly distributed over the two hours of runtime. Cave tends to indulge in flashy – occasionally funny too – sequences for the sole purpose of applauding Sebastian Stan’s bonkers performance. As if the director’s aware of that slowdown, she then serves the dessert which will likely divide audiences. I, for one, didn’t enjoy the way Fresh (2022) concluded, despite it being bold and kept within the genre borders.
No matter how odd the choices of Mimi Cave are though, Fresh (2022) never ventures too far offshore either. While some aspects of this thriller scream for referencing the likes of The Human Centipede (2009), with its over-the-top gory humor, Cave insists on sticking to a more grounded story, as well as keeping the proceedings believable. Yet as was the case of False Positive (2021), last year’s failed attempt at a conscious horror about abortion, Fresh too (2022) fails to capture the horrors of modern dating with a reflection that goes beyond the slasher entertainment it essentially is.