Fresh review: Cannibal horror proves there’s a difference between clever metaphors and satisfying ones

Sebastian Stan and Daisy Edgar-Jones star in a dating satire that never really engages with its ideas

Clarisse Loughrey
Saturday 19 March 2022 11:14 GMT
Fresh trailer

Dir: Mimi Cave. Starring: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Sebastian Stan, Jojo T Gibbs, Charlotte Le Bon, Dayo Okeniyi. 18, 114 minutes.

Modern dating can make a girl feel like a real slab of meat – at least, that’s the central thesis of Mimi Cave’s debut Fresh, a horror-comedy with its teeth filed down to stubs. “Hopefully, this’ll make for a good story,” Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) tells her BFF Mollie (Jojo T Gibbs) before she heads off on a date with the most blandly vile man you can imagine: he monologues about acid reflux, tells her she’d look prettier in a dress, spouts some racism at their waiter, and then calls Noa a “bitch” when she doesn’t want to kiss him. When Noa gets back home, she tries to message another guy. He immediately responds with a dick pic.

So who could blame her for ignoring every red flag presented by Steve (Sebastian Stan), who approaches her in a grocery store and jokes about how cotton candy grapes really do taste like cotton candy. Steve seems all too perfect: he loves to dance in the middle of his living room, he doesn’t want to rush into sex, and he isn’t on social media (which the film treats as immediately suspect, but I would argue is the romantic ideal). Noa complains that dating reduces us all to “the perfect projection”, but she’s just as willing to play into romcom fantasy: she’s a “pancakes out of a bag” kind of girl, he’s a sophisticated cocktail connoisseur. As Mollie points out: “It’s a straight girl’s fantasy come true!”

It’s a very relatable sort of hypocrisy. And when Steve whisks Noa away for a weekend out in nature, we’re meant to read it as passionate and spontaneous – right up to the moment the film’s title belatedly drops, around half an hour in, and we find out that he’s actually a cannibal. Not a hobbyist cannibal, mind you, but a professional one, carving up women for wealthy clients while keeping them chained in his basement so the meat stays fresh. But Cave’s film proves that there’s a clear difference between clever metaphors and satisfying ones.

The way Steve looks Noa dead in the eyes and says “I’m taking your ass” is a very dark but funny joke. And Cave, certainly, leans into the film’s tongue-in-cheek quality. Fresh is shot by cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, known for his work on both Hereditary and Midsommar, and the camera lurches around Steve’s mid-century basement dungeon (quite nice if you take it out of context) in queasy disbelief at what’s going on. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Steve is carving up body parts – for human meatballs and human prosciutto – while dancing to Peter Cetera’s “Restless Heart”. In another scene, he trudges into Noa’s room, whining about how exhausting it is to chop up women all day.

Stan has clearly been directed to give us Patrick Bateman with a Hannibal Lecter garnish, and it’s effective for what it is. But Bateman – of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho – always represented a somewhat outsized vision of male narcissism, and Fresh can’t ever decide how much this film should rub up against reality. Steve is a monster. But he’s kind of a fun monster: at times a little goofy, and never fully detached from Stan’s sex appeal. There’s no moment where his mask slips and we’re exposed to something uncomfortably real. And that doesn’t sit well with a film that so eagerly deploys the language of women’s actual trauma. Noa, in her prison, can hear the voices of other women, who soothe each other with dreams of bloody vengeance against their captor, and reminders that “it’s not your fault… it’s always theirs”.

But Fresh never really engages with the truth behind those words. Noa’s only hope of escape involves crossing what some might think is a moral line, as if there’s no escaping the patriarchy unblemished. It’s unclear, though, whether that’s really the message here. Edgar-Jones, as watchable in the film as she may have been in Normal People, is never really allowed to develop Noa beyond her immediate victimhood. And what does the film have to say about race, since Mollie is never allowed to step out of the role of the Black, bisexual, ever-present emotional support of the white protagonist? To frame it in Fresh’s own language, all we get here is a single bite – not the whole steak.

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