Gentle readers, I need to start this off with a great big fucking CONTENT WARNING. For the blog entry and the movie both. I seriously wish someone had told me what I was getting into with Fresh, because I was not ready for a film that dealt with sexual assault, violence against women, toxic masculinity, and freaking cannibalism to the harrowing extent that this movie did. No joke, I had to watch this two-hour film over a span of two days because of all the time I needed to step away until the nausea had passed.

This was an exceedingly difficult film to watch, and this will not be an easy blog entry to read. I’m glad I saw the movie, I’m grateful for the chance to get my feelings about it down on digital paper, and I hope that you get something out of reading this. But for how much I deeply respect this movie and I’m profoundly grateful that it exists, I am never, EVER seeing it again.

Your mental/emotional health matters. So if any of this could be overly disturbing or potentially triggering, you may safely consider those last two paragraphs the review in full. For anyone else, read on.

Fresh comes to us from writer/producer Lauryn Kahn, whose only other feature credit to date is a 2018 Netflix comedy called Ibiza. Aside from a few short films, Kahn primarily came up as an assistant to Adam McKay, who graciously produces here through his Hyperobject Industries shingle. In the director’s chair is Mimi Cave, here making her feature debut after a respectable career in short films and music videos. The film is by and large a two-hander: Daisy Edgar-Jones is primarily known for television work in her native England, and of course Sebastian Stan needs no further introduction. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Jonica T. Gibbs in a supporting role — she’s known for the “Twenties” TV show on BET and not much else.

The film is a 20th Century Studios release by way of Hulu, and imagine my surprise to find that the film doesn’t predate the Disney takeover! No, this isn’t a No Exit situation in which the film got greenlit in 2017 just so Disney would get stuck with a bigger asking price and a film they were contractually obligated to produce. No, this movie was first announced in the freaking summer of 2020! Announcing a film during the peak of COVID lockdown and producing it all through the pandemic took major cojones, but it turns out that horror cinema is uniquely suited to life and work in time of COVID. After all, the genre has been scaling back costs for years, and it’s been repeatedly proven that an effective horror film can be made on a shoestring budget with claustrophobic sets and a minimal cast. (Again, see No Exit.)

But (again, as No Exit sadly proved) this expedient and quarantine-safe production doesn’t amount to much if the story isn’t there. So consider this your last chance to either buckle up or bail out. I’m not kidding.

Edgar-Jones plays Noa, a twenty-something woman with no siblings, a dead father, and an estranged mother. In fact, aside from her best friend (Mollie, played by Gibbs), Noa has no family or friends at all. She’s alone, and professes to be quite happy being alone, yet she still subjects herself to the puffed-up douchebags and unsolicited dick pics that come with life in the online dating game.

Enter Steve, who gets a meet-cute with Noa at a grocery store. And it’s Sebastian Stan bringing his A-game at flirting, so of course Noa falls head over heels for him and does her best to overcome her own social anxieties to try and make this work. A few weeks later, Steve invites her for a romantic getaway out of town.

Alas, the worst-case scenario comes to pass in a big way and Steve turns out to be a psychopath. One thing leads to another and Noa wakes up chained to the floor in Steve’s basement. In fact, Noa is only the latest of many young women that Steve has chained to his basement over the years. But he doesn’t kill them. Not right away, at least.

No, it seems that Steve has a small yet devoted, perverted, and obscenely wealthy clientele who pay Steve handsomely for the flesh of young women, ready for cooking. And Steve is keeping these women alive for as long as possible, to keep the meat fresh. So he can chop off their body parts one at a time, as if they are literally being eaten alive over a period of months.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you, gentle readers.

Before going any further, it’s worth pointing out that Noa seems to be getting preferential treatment. The other girls locked up in that basement are apparently getting chunks carved out of them at a much faster rate, and it’s said that she’s the only one that Steve ever fucked before kidnapping her. Of course it’s certainly possible that this is some kind of a long game and there’s something else he might want from her, but what could that possibly be?

Then comes the showstopping monologue partway through, in which Steve explains that he always felt like a weirdo until he found a community of other like-minded cannibals. And this is when everything comes into much sharper focus.

Steve isn’t in this for the money or the thrill of the hunt or whatever. He’s doing this to serve his own ego. More than that, he’s doing this because he wants to feel accepted. He wants to feel loved and handsome and powerful. He wants to feel a deep, carnal connection with beautiful women and to know that they’re lusting after his body in turn. He’s doing this because he’s deathly afraid of being alone and unloved.

Basically put, he’s doing this for all the reasons why anyone (particularly men) would go out dating. The reasons are simply taken to the most unspeakably horrific extremes, is all.

Funny enough, all of this gives Noa the only advantage she has. She’s physically no match for Steve, she’s trapped in his house, and he’s gotten away with doing this to many other women for quite some time. What’s more, it’s abundantly obvious that Steve is smart enough and well-financed enough that he’s planned and equipped for any number of contingencies and scenarios.

And what does Noa have? Her feminine charm. And she’s using it against a man who desperately wants her to like him, even as he keeps her chained up under threat of death and/or dismemberment. It may not sound like much, but men have been making idiots of themselves over attractive women since Adam and Eve.

Thus Noa has to find some way of working through her pain and trauma to seduce Steve into making a mistake, without overplaying her hand. In the process, she has to find some way of meeting Steve at his level and getting inside his head. On one level, this makes for compelling character drama. On another level, it makes for some biting satire on modern dating and courtship. On yet another level, it’s tragic and gut-churning, the stuff that Noa has to do and the jokes she has to tell in achieving her ultimate goal.

The whole movie has a sick sense of humor, made even more disgusting by how on-point and whip-smart every joke is. I’ve said in the past that the line between funny and horrifying is a razor-thin one, and this movie rides that line perfectly from start to finish. Through literally every minute, the satire of toxic masculinity and unflinching treatment of the cannibalistic subject matter left me unsure as to whether I wanted to laugh or throw up. I only know that as a straight white cis-gendered male, I was going to end up hating myself either way.

And this feels like as good a time as any to digress momentarily, because we need to talk about Marc Lepine.

Lepine — who identified himself as an “incel” — legally obtained a semi-automatic rifle and walked into a classroom. He immediately ordered every student in attendance to separate themselves by gender — 50 men and nine women on opposite sides of the room. Lepine ordered the men to leave, and they all did. Lepine then shot the women — six of whom eventually died — before pulling the trigger on himself.

Take a long, hard moment to think about that. One madman with a gun, clearly and vocally intent on killing every woman he could find, versus 50 men. Even armed against unarmed, one against 50 are still some terrible odds. How could things have ended differently if those 50 men had stood up to Lepine or tried to talk him down? If even one had the courage to do so, how many more might have followed? Now think about all the violent misanthropic wannabe martyrs out there who’ve been all too eager to vent their sexual frustrations by way of artillery fire, and realize that it isn’t a rhetorical question.

Think about it — when do you think that shooting happened? There have been so many shootings over the past couple of decades, where and when in the USA could that shooting have happened? Trick question. That shooting happened at the Polytechnique engineering school in Montreal, Canada. And it happened in December of goddamn 1989!

I bring this up because being a progressive feminist ally means acknowledging that the patriarchal society of our modern world is disproportionately inclined towards violence against women. Taken to this logical conclusion, this leads to the horrifying reality that someday, a man’s intervention or lack thereof could literally make the difference between a woman’s life or death. It could happen at any traumatic moment, on any terrible day. Look deep inside and ask yourself with unflinching honesty if you could find the courage to do the right thing if and when you see all the telltale signs of someone in possible danger. Hell, would you even know what to do in such a scenario?

From literally the very first frame to that last gag just before the credits, the filmmakers are ruthlessly clear in portraying a world that is inherently hostile toward women. Even before all that nasty business with Steve, we see the way Noa holds her car keys in between her fingers as she walks to her car at night. We see the precautions that Noa and Mollie have in place with each other when either one goes out.

And then we meet Paul (Dayo Okeniyi), an overall nice guy who’s clearly well-liked by Noa and Mollie. But he’s a black man who’s understandably paranoid about the cops, he’s concerned about losing his job, he’s skittish about the potential effects of raising a false alarm, and so on. In any other horror movie, Paul might be the guy who comes in to call the cavalry at the last minute. But because it’s this movie, he’s the guy who’s too scared to do what he knows to be the right thing, even when he knows that good friends of his are in serious danger.

There are no good feminist allies in this picture. Every single male character, down to a one, either objectifies women figuratively (acting like pigs through online dating apps), objectifies them literally (carving them up and eating them), or turns out to be a hypocrite when the chips are down (Paul). Yet with every single male character, I personally found it alarmingly easy to see where they were coming from and to understand their mindset. And that might just be the film’s crowning achievement. That sickened me and terrified me more than anything else in this picture.

Daisy Edgar-Jones turns in a thoroughly dynamic and effortlessly charming performance. Sebastian Stan turns in what’s basically a retread of his routine from The 355, only bigger and broader and he’s in the hands of filmmakers who actually know what they’re doing, so it works this time. Jojo T. Gibbs is nicely charismatic, and Charlotte Le Bon turns in a brief yet intensely memorable supporting performance.

Then we have Mimi Cave, who blows every door clear off the hinges on her first try. I can’t possibly lavish enough praise on her delivery of the dark comedy, with every sickening joke only serving to make the film more disturbing and incisive even as I hated myself for laughing. She makes liberal use of extreme close-up shots, which elevates the cannibalistic element into full-on body horror, and the surreal editing helps a great deal.

Put it this way — you know how people were terrified to go swimming after Jaws? Or scared to take a shower after Psycho? Or go to sleep after Nightmare on Elm Street? Well, that’s what this movie will do to the simple act of eating. And also dating.

That said, if I’m keeping it entirely honest, I was displeased with a few pathetic attempts at boosting the horror content by way of cheap jump scares. This was especially egregious in scenes like Mollie’s workplace, where we know for a fact that the characters couldn’t possibly be in that kind of danger.

Even so, Fresh dovetails horror with comedy, and gut-churning scares with wickedly incisive social commentary, with a deft and intelligent touch that I haven’t seen outside of a Jordan Peele flick. I do not say that lightly. There were so many layers of merciless feminist themes atop of all the layers of gut-wrenching body horror, every minute of this film made me want to throw up half my body weight. I commend the film for it, but that hardly makes it an enjoyable experience.

This is a film that demands to be seen exactly ONCE. For those who have the fortitude to watch the film, to confront their own roles and actions within our patriarchal society, and to do so in a safe and mindful way with regard to their own mental and emotional well-being, this is absolutely worth a free stream on Hulu. If only because you’ve got to see this film to believe what these filmmakers could get away with.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go to bed so I can wake up screaming in the morning.


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