Broken down into its constituent parts, there’s much about Fresh that seems familiar. You might see Promising Young Woman in screenwriter Lauryn Kahn’s scathing commentary on the horrors of modern dating, or Get Out in her shrewd use of horror tropes to amplify them. There are shades of American Psycho in its acid sense of humor, and Hannibal in its taste for luxury.
But director Mimi Cave, in her feature directorial debut, corrals these influences into a film that lives up to its title. If Fresh stumbles on the way to its own finish line, it’s still a hell of a way to launch a career.
Lives up to its name.
The first act of Fresh plays more or less like a rom-com. Just when Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones of Hulu’s Normal People) decides she’s fed up with dating, she meets Steve (Sebastian Stan), a handsome plastic surgeon who shares her taste for Old Fashioneds and dark jokes. (On their first date, they toast ironically to the fact that both of them have dead parents.)
It may not be true love — Noa declares herself too hardened to believe in such things — but it feels like a genuine connection. So she lets herself indulge in what her best friend Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs) quite reasonably describes as “the straight girl’s fantasy come true,” and agrees to let Steve whisk her away to a romantic getaway in the woods.
At this point, over half an hour into the 114-minute film, the other shoe drops. The eerie opening credits roll — white text warping over disorienting close-ups of floors, paintings and what looks like pools of fresh blood — and Fresh reveals itself as the horror story it truly is.
Fresh is more fun without spoilers, but it’s not especially difficult to guess what Steve’s terrible secret is. If the wink-wink wordplay in the official plot synopsis doesn’t give it away, Kahn’s script and Cave’s visual approach drop plenty of hints long before Steve comes out with it. It’s a testament to the ballsiness of Kahn’s script, though, that Steve’s sick motives are just the tip of the iceberg. The real narrative shocks lay in how they manifest, and the gruesome consequences that ripple from them.
As Steve, Stan gives one of the most arresting performances of his career. In early scenes, he’s an eminently reasonable romantic lead — the kind of guy you totally believe could get a girl’s number at the grocery store with a cutesy anecdote about Cotton Candy grapes. But it’s when the character’s true nature is revealed that Stan rises to his full potential, channeling Patrick Bateman while dancing to Animotion’s “Obsession” in his kitchen or monologuing to an unfortunately captive audience.
That Edgar-Jones is able to maintain her footing against such unhinged charisma is a feat in itself. Even backed into the most desperate of corners, her Noa projects some inner reservoir of strength and wit that keeps the viewer from ever losing sight of the real hero.
The true star of Fresh, however, is its style — lush, unsettling and precise. Cave’s camera can be a ruthless killer. In keeping with the film’s themes about consumption and commodification, it frequently fragments human bodies into incomplete collections of parts: a mouth wrapping around a morsel of food, fingertips caressing a neck in the shower, legs pounding the pavement during a run.
When it zooms out, it luxuriates in saturated colors and rich textures, often to unnerving effect. Fresh has no shortage of gory, gleefully explicit imagery, but it also throws the viewer off balance in quieter ways. It can provoke queasiness by juxtaposing two strong but clashing colors, or claustrophobia by filling a room with too much of a single shade. Paired with a soundtrack that combines ’80s synth-pop, indie rock and electronica, Fresh is almost overwhelming as a sensory experience.
It’s as a narrative that Fresh falls a bit short. Fresh‘s central allegory is a clever one, and the horror story that spins out from it never less than gripping. But the film settles for reiterating its core ideas in more and more dramatic terms, rather than deepening or expanding them. Then, just when Fresh threatens to run out of steam, the final 20 minutes devolve into utter chaos — as if, having no idea how to end Noa’s story, the filmmakers threw up their hands and decided to do everything all at once in hopes something would work.
In addition to the protracted violence one might expect from a horror finale, there are screamed insults, multiple chases through multiple sets, one character who knows all too well what happens to horror movie characters in their situations, a different character making exactly the kind of rookie mistake that sends horror fans howling at their screen and a kicker that underlines the metaphor one more time for good measure. None of it is subtle, and not all of it makes much sense. But regarded as a whole, Fresh is a success — a taste of its creative talents’ abilities that leave the viewer hungry for more.