All Creatures Here Below is a Midwestern tragedy that, scene by scene, grows incrementally more horrific. Tearing open the wounds of childhood trauma, the director, Collin Schiffli, and his writer, David Dastmalchian, immerse us in the desperate acts of a young runaway couple, then dare us to condemn them.
For Ruby and Gensan (Karen Gillan and Dastmalchian, both incredible), life in downtown Los Angeles is a daily struggle of bottom-rung jobs, scratch cards and garbage-rifling. After both are fired through no fault of their own, Gensan unwisely bets his severance pay on an illegal cockfight that leaves him fleeing the law with a stolen car and a blood-spattered wad of cash. From there, it’s all downhill — especially when Ruby joins him bearing a box whose contents immeasurably increases their peril.
On one level, All Creatures Here Below is a well-worn look at life on the margins. Its ideas aren’t new, and at times Ruby and Gensan can feel like recognizable symbols of societal failure. What’s different, though, is the performers’ skill in portraying characters whose extreme mutual dependence is touchingly believable, giving no hint of the damage later revealed. If Ruby seems a little slow, and Gensan quick to anger, then poor education and extreme poverty can be blamed. And when they’re forced to return home to Kansas City — and a past that neither wants to revisit — their fates feel heartbreakingly inevitable.
A movie about calamitous choices and the constraints that shape them, Creatures places its leads in one moral trap after another. Despite this, the actors miraculously keep us on their side — until, finally, they can’t.
Review courtesy of The New York Times, where the film is amongst their “Critic’s Picks.”