No film to emerge onto screens this spring may present itself so vaguely or nearly misleading as the lengthy, killer nature in Mimi Cave’s Fresh. And it’s perhaps for the best that I went into it as cold as I had. Even the poster was enough to keep its surprise factor consistent. However, the very moment that wears off, and its intentions settle down, the mood sours, and no amount of spice or seasoning can mellow out its sharp disgust.
It starts fine enough, in the guise of an innocent rom-com. Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) has been persistently unlucky in love, striking out so often on dating apps while confiding in bestie Mollie (JoJo T. Gibbs). Fortunes appear to shift in a positive direction the moment she crosses paths with Steve (Sebastian Stan). He’s a reconstructive surgeon, having saved a few lives alongside the mild vanity project. But what Noa discovers, eventually after half an hour of screen time, the surgeries mean more. Way more, for the super-wealthy buyer who, like expert cook Steve, find human flesh an opportune delicacy.
Promotional descriptions were enough to keep the plot from being completely secretive, without its striking familiarities to give way. In the hands of Cave and writer Lauryn Kahn (Ibiza), Fresh feels original to some degree. Romance gone off the rails by nefarious deeds. Yet its visceral nature is quick to remind one of 2019’s Swallow, or 2017’s Split, albeit way tamer and self-deprecating. If you’ve seen either of those films or others in a similar pitter-patter, you’ve likely already seen this bitingly sadistic triad in a far more eloquent manner.
Not that Cave is any less motivated to show dignity as a side dish for her cannibalistic angle. Many a quiet beat downplay the carnage, however. To a point of the story eventually tiring itself out, the same way a glass of red would when paired with a tenderloin. At nearly two hours, even mere tension is starved of any air or momentum. Only to be replaced by conversational gymnastics, fueled between Stan and Edgar-Jones’s romantic chemistry. Her Noa matches the criteria of a shy narcissist trying to reel herself in, his Steve’s the debonair free spirit she’s overeager to connect with. Complete with wedding dance bravado, and a penchant for 80s hits, particularly those of Richard Marx and Animotion, his swagger is unmatchable. And Gibbs’ over-concerned third wheel character carries some mild interjections, while on a hunt to figure out just what’s amiss with her friend’s relationship. But her intentions, along with the despair of Steve’s other captives only slow down the tempo of what could’ve been a simpler cat and mouse game, with Stan taking the lead.
It’s rather a shame his talent’s being misused here, in a futile attempt to make his character both comical and evil. Cave should only have to pick one side. But then Edgar-Jones reasserts the latter, by way of a sharp word soup acerbity. That, paired with a macabre Alex Somers (Together Together) soundtrack, and sharper editing through the experienced Martin Pensa (Togo) do help to keep the story from grinding to an utter halt. We get very close right up to the latter third; at least there, Cave’s “race against time” demeanor can be used. Though not ultimately fulfilling to where the pace of events speeds up.
By the time this unremarkable bit of body horror reaches the finish line, it might make sense why its manner of M&A lends itself to some manner of mystery. Even the opening titles come after a bated breath exhale 30 or so minutes in, and that was somewhat unnecessary. Fresh may promise a newfound spin on raw carnage, but all I saw, with runtime heavily padded out, was a film well past its expiration date. It would still be edible, or viewable, just sans any taste. Stan works overtime to save the dish but can only do so much as it regrettably misses the table. (C; 3/5 Horns Up!)
Fresh debuts on Hulu March 4; rated R for strong and disturbing violent content, some bloody images, language throughout, some sexual content, and brief graphic nudity; 114 minutes.