Isaac (2023)

Isaac had its world première on Sat 26 Aug in the First Blood Strand at FrightFest

Isaac opens with a primal scene. Its first shot moves at ground level through sun-dappled wheat stalks – a Malickian image of homespun, idyllic nostalgia, and of the melancholy that comes with Paradise lost. As though to underscore the Edenic associations, we are in an orchard, with apples visible growing on the trees, as an Eve walks behind her Adam and scatters something from her hand into the Earth below.  In fact this is Sarah Reeves (Kathryn Louise) who, with her husband Nicholas (Johnny Vivash), is not sowing seeds, but dispersing the ashes of their daughter Rebecca, who succumbed at a very young age to congenital muscular dystrophy. Now, every time Sarah makes her signature pork and apple casserole, the couple is somehow communing with their lost daughter, whose remains have fed the trees from which the apples were picked. Yet soon the couple will be biting a different forbidden fruit, recreating a new Genesis to assuage their guilt and longing, and to fill the emptiness that Rebecca has left behind.

A story of love and grief, Isaac is marked by absence – not just the absence of Rebecca, but of the Reeves’ titular second child (occasionally heard but not seen), and eventually of Sarah herself who, unable any longer to stand the deep dysfunction that has fallen over this household, has upped and left. This is ten years later, when Isaac, named for the Old Testament son born to a father who never expected to have another child, is already nine years old – yet flashbacks reveal that he is no ordinary boy, but a trial ‘product’ genetically engineered by GEO Group with the same synthetic gene technology that the corporation uses to put cell-bred meat on the Reeves’ table. There is an aching gulf between the hope that GEO representative Dr Greta Abner (Catriona MacColl) first brought the Reeves when she got them to sign her Faustian contract, and the ruin, a decade later, that has befallen this farm, even as its old organic apple trees are felled to make way for GM replacements. Here unethical scientific practice has irrevocable consequences, with the already damaged Nicholas shattered twice over by the legacy of his bad genes and even worse decisions. Yet much as this is a domestic tragedy, the haunted, unravelling Nicholas has an aptly Thyestean revenge in store. 

Writer/director Tariq Sayed’s feature debut is all about Isaac. Yet although the boy is the endless topic of conversation, is constantly fed plates of GEO meat through a hatch in the barred door to his upstairs room, and leaves physical scars on his parents to match their less visible traumas, he is carefully kept off screen and out of the frame, reduced to a piteous idea – an artificial concept(ion) – around which the film named after him is organised. The agricultural setting is not coincidental – for this is a film of bad seeds, of perverted food chains and of monstrous hybridity, where you reap what you sow and you are what you eat. The science fiction may be worn lightly here, in what is essentially a cottage-bound three-hander – or four-hander, once the couple’s old physician Dr Arthur Guria (Bosco Hogan) turns up to provide some awkward if necessary exposition – but at heart this is a classic tale of corporate immorality, hubristic technology and individual collapse, where the seeds of loss, once planted, yield only toxic nourishment.

strap: In Tariq Sayed’s lo-fi sci-fi feature debut, a grieving father must swallow the consequences of bad genes and worse decisions

© Anton Bitel