‘I don’t eat animals’ says charming but enigmatic doctor Steve (Sebastian Stan) on his second or third date with the rather smitten Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) after he’s offered some beef from her plate. It could be a simple throwaway remark, but the specificity of it raises a red flag, one Noa pushes down but the audience simply can’t. It’s in this unidentifiable discomfort that the first third of Mimi Cave’s directorial debut Fresh makes its home, the buzzing unease of being a woman in the dating pool, before taking a sharp turn into the outright horrific, hammering home a metaphor with queasy gore and old-school psycho-horror thrills.
Noa starts out seeing Steve slightly against her better judgment after he approaches her out of the blue at a supermarket, charming and direct and entirely unlike the needy freaks she’s been saddled with on Tinder dates. Her best friend Mollie (Jojo T Gibbs) has some sensible suspicions, but Noa eventually agrees for Steve to take her on a weekend trip to the wilderness and it’s not long before she’s been drugged, chained up in a lavish basement, and told she’s going to be sold off in chunks to various ultra-rich cannibals.
It’s a reveal that doesn’t come as a particular surprise, but it’s effectively unnerving nonetheless, made all the more striking by Cave’s bolshy decision to not drop the title card until her hand is fully played at around the 30-minute mark. This slow-burn immersion into this world makes for a great intro, grounding an inherently silly premise in real human stakes and playing all the warning signs for both terror and dark comedy. Edgar-Jones does a great job in both modes, capturing Noa’s subtle repression of her own unease at the start before shifting into the higher-octane ‘prisoner-of-a-psychopath’ mode, while Stan is clearly just having an absolute ball as basically a monster in a human skin-suit.
Fresh is grisly, rivalling even the NBC Hannibal for sickening ‘meat’ scenes, but if you can stomach its more gruesome moments it’s also very exciting and even cathartic, though honest-to-god scares are a bit hard to come by. Lauryn Kahn’s script is hardly going to win originality or subtlety points for its messages about the commodification of young women, but it doesn’t really need to when it makes those points with such bloody fury and gallows humour.
Running at two hours, Fresh is a little too long for the story it has to tell and doesn’t quite stick the landing, which is a shame, as most of the final third is exhilarating, just let down by a final five or so minutes that lean way too hard into slasher-movie cliches that don’t quite fit the tone Cave and Kahn have established. It’s still an enjoyably wild ride to get there though, sometimes surprising but sometimes using predictability as a weapon and fronted by two lead turns that add yet more strings to the bows of its star duo, cementing Edgar-Jones’s ‘rising star’ position and proving yet again that there aren’t many actors that are more fun to hate than Stan.