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The opening scenes of Fresh pinpoint the anxieties of modern dating with terrifying precision. Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones), a perfectly pleasant young woman, goes out with a turd in a scarf who calls her a bitch when she politely turns him down for a second date. Then she gets an unsolicited dick pic from a guy on a dating app. So when she meet-cutes the adorable Steve (Sebastian Stan) in the produce aisle, she skips the bullshit and jumps right into a relationship with him. And why not? He’s handsome and charmingly old-fashioned—he sheepishly admits to not being on social media. There are no red flags, except that he seems so into her, and that only feels wrong because she’s accustomed to being treated like crap, right?
Fresh works best before it answers this question definitively. Early on, the film gets its power from the performance of Edgar-Jones, who expresses the perfect cocktail of desire and doubt. In close-up, we watch her respond physically to Steve’s formidable charm; her eyes glisten, her mouth turns up at the corners, and her body turns toward him as if pulled by magnetic force. But her reactions are purposefully rote, and there’s a slight, almost imperceptible hesitation in her responses when he takes her hand for an impromptu dance party or, more alarmingly, invites her on a weekend getaway after just two dates. She knows something is off, but she’s desperate to be wrong.
It’s at this point that Fresh takes a turn for the horrific, and all this wonderful nuance gets thrown out. After being drugged, Noa wakes up chained to the wall in Steve’s home. She hears other women held captive throughout the house. The mystery doesn’t last long, and soon the blood is spilling. While Steve’s grotesque plans for them (which I won’t spoil here) do track with the film’s central thesis—for women, dating is the stuff of nightmares—Noa’s struggle takes a back seat. The camera, controlled by first-time feature director Mimi Cave, is so drawn to the gore and gristle that you might be compelled to turn off your brain just to survive it. Somewhere along the way, the message gets lost.
It’s a film torn between its sensory experience and the exigencies of its plot. Noa tries to charm her way out of her shackles by making Steve fall in love with her, while her friend Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs) works to track her down by playing detective. These machinations feel awkward. They never quite grind the film to a halt, but Fresh is undoubtedly most alive when delighting in its ambivalence, particularly toward its male psychopath. A nightmare for Noa is a fantasy for Steve, who somehow sees himself as being in a romance with his victims, even as he is subjecting them to unimaginable torture (no, I won’t spoil it). The film indulges in his delusion, giving Stan pop songs to dance around the house to, and ogling him in the kind of luxurious framing that is typically reserved for the likes of James Bond.
There is plenty to admire in Fresh, but with every minute of run time, it becomes less like satire and more like unimaginative horror, replete with jump scares, revenge killings, and decisions by the protagonist that will have you shouting at the screen. The obvious contrast here is Get Out, another horror film in which microaggressions slowly give way to real violence. The difference is mostly in the pacing, with Fresh getting to its ghastly plot twist so quickly that it runs out of insights and has no choice but to devolve into horror movie cliches. Its observations about the brutality of our mating rituals would have easily been sharp enough to hold our attention for longer. Instead, Fresh spoils itself.
Fresh will be streaming on Hulu starting March 4.