An excellent Daisy Edgar-Jones stars in Fresh, a horror film about a woman plunged into a terrifying situation after dating a charming older stranger.
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NOTE: This review of Fresh is filled with spoilers.
“Fuck it,” becomes Noa’s (Daisy Edgar-Jones) mantra in the first act of Fresh, a surprising and entertaining, if a little thin, horror film from director Mimi Cave. Noa is a young woman in Portland attempting to navigate the world of relationships through dating apps, but she’s more successful in finding surprise dick pics than anything resembling romance. After an awful date with a disrespectful, patronising man named Chad (Brett Dier), she’s just about ready to give up on dating. That is, until an alluring, older stranger, Steve (Sebastian Stan) flirts with her in the fresh produce aisle of her local grocery store. Noa is seasoned enough with men to spot a red flag when she sees one, but she’s also anxious for adventure and romance, and so she pushes through doubt and says “fuck it.” A drink with Steve turns into a night of passion turns into an invitation to go on a weekend getaway at a surprise locale.
At this point, Fresh takes a violent turn, dropping its title card thirty-eight minutes in when Steve drugs Noa, locks her in his basement, and informs her he plans to sell her body parts as meat. At this twist, Fresh shows its cards. This is a film about the literal commodification of women’s bodies. Screenwriter Lauryn Kahn invents an underground network of incredibly rich men who purchase women’s meat as luxury meals, and the surgeon Steve makes a living by keeping these women alive (to keep them fresh) while slowly carving off body part after body part. Steve pitches it to Noa as an act of respect toward these women: they’re being sold as luxury items, appreciated as a delicacy; obviously, Noa and the other women kept in adjacent rooms from her do not see it that way. It’s not hard to decode Kahn’s metaphors here, although the film’s shock factor and sense of humour keep it engaging.
Steve’s business is… extreme. But that first act is important context: the film places Steve’s sadism on a continuum with other men Noa encounters in the dating world. When Noa wakes up and Steve informs her of what he plans to do to her, she’s understandably distraught, while he’s totally blase, even asking her to give him a smile. When he visits her, his manner is disturbingly upbeat, as if he doesn’t expect their dynamic to have changed from when they were innocently dating. Just as Chad expected a kiss and a second date after insulting Noa continually on their first date, Steve still feels entitled to kindness and interest from Noa despite the fact that he’s literally dismembering her. The inability of men to register the fact that their poor treatment of women might result in disinterest is blown up to the largest scale imaginable.
Noa’s advantage is that she has so much experience in the dating world that she knows about male entitlement all too well, and as an intelligent and perceptive person, she can use it to her advantage. In Fresh, appeasing men’s egos is a lifesaving skill. Noa later realises that Steve never had sex with the other girls he’s keeping, but he did with her, something he describes as “a lapse in judgement” because he liked her so much. Noa puts the pieces together that she may have a chance at saving her skin (literally) by playing on his affection for her, building it up until he can’t bear to kill her. And amazingly, it works. She is a skillful manipulator in her own way, because she understands that Steve is inclined to think that he is attractive and appealing. Despite the dire circumstances, it doesn’t take much to fool him into believing she’s still romantically interested in him.
This is where Daisy Edgar-Jones’s performance really shines: she delicately balances Noa’s underlying fear with her calm and collected surface, when she’s trying to flirt with Steve. He invites her to have a series of candlelit dinners with him, and she expertly feigns interest, just as she’s done on countless dates before. You sense that this is a woman used to concealing fear at what a man might do to her. The only difference here is that she knows the stakes are life and death, rather than just fearing they might be. Edgar-Jones is captivating, showcasing Noa’s intelligence and cunning. Noa makes constant, barely perceptible microassessments about how to approach Steve, seen through the shifting of Edgar-Jones’s eyes and slight adjustments of her facial expressions, all while keeping her face mostly neutral so that Steve won’t be able to read her.
Unfortunately, this is where Fresh starts to run out of ideas, or fails to delve deeper into the ones it does have in favour of simple thrills. Its exploration of the horrors of dating, if you’re a woman interested in men, rings true in some respects, but it also all goes down a bit too easy (despite all the gore, and there is a lot of it). For example, the film doesn’t handle the characters around Noa nearly as well as it handles her. Her best friend, Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs), a queer Black woman, spends a large part of the film investigating Noa’s disappearance, which places her in Steve’s dangerous path. Her presence as a woman of colour who falls victim to Steve, as well as Penny (Andrea Bang), an East Asian woman who occupies Noa’s neighbouring basement cell, raises questions that the film fails to answer about Noa’s whiteness. There was an opportunity here to ponder if Noa’s privileged position as one of Steve’s “favourites,” allowing her to manipulate him into keeping her safe, is a product of her whiteness. But the film altogether ignores this, and barely develops Mollie and Penny as characters.
It’s as if the film’s desire to tell one sort of “feminist horror” story that is, ultimately, about women fighting back, forces it to ignore any important nuances that might complicate its triumphant ending. One of the thornier subplots, about Steve’s former victim and current wife, Ann (Charlotte le Bon), is totally underbaked. Ann now supports and even collaborates in Steve’s enslavement of young, innocent women, even though she once was one of those women. But the film picks this up and drops it immediately, tossing her off as a villain to be vanquished instead of an interesting character whose motives are worth exploring.
At times, Fresh calls to mind Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant Unsane, which also climaxes with a violent confrontation in the woods. But there’s a key difference: Unsane doesn’t end when the evil is defeated, instead offering an epilogue that grapples with our protagonist’s lasting trauma, and the fact that ridding the world of one evil man doesn’t destroy the system of patriarchy. Such an ending does not allow the viewer to feel triumphant, because it’s true to the fact that danger doesn’t stop with one individual. Noa might not go on any more dates with random guys in grocery stores, but the men she met online also weren’t favourable options. Men with the same entitlement as Steve are everywhere, even if not all of them would go as far as to literally cut women into pieces. I’d like to see a version of Fresh that follows Noa past the immediate aftermath of being held hostage by Steve. How do you trust men after having such horrific experiences with them? Defeating the monster is only half the battle.
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