There are also times when the meaning of the film is weighed down by its own gravity.
“Don’t go there, man,” a store clerk tells Gensan (David Dastmalchian) toward the beginning of All Creatures Here Below. Gensan has just been laid off and wants to go bet on a chicken fight to win back twice his paycheck; his friend tells him it’s not safe. Of course, Gensan goes, and when he gets there, he doesn’t find a scene that immediately cries danger: Instead, he finds a familial environment, a house full of family members doing laundry and kids running around the living room. Only once he ventures further in does the real danger present itself.
It’s clear early on that things are not about to go well for Gensan and his girlfriend, Ruby (Karen Gillan). Even when they’re living relatively peaceful lives together in Los Angeles, it’s questionable how equipped they are to deal with chaos and conflict: Gensan is content as long as he’s got Ruby by his side and his metal music blasting in his earphones, and it seems that all it takes to make Ruby happy is a Baby Ruth candy bar. But the walls of poverty are swiftly closing in on both of them, and they’re not prepared to face whatever comes next.
“There’s something just around the corner,” Ruby promises Gensan after losing her job, the tone of her voice pleading, as if their troubles will go away if they just hold out hope and pretend.
This fragile world comes crashing down when they independently commit crimes on the same day—Gensan kills a man in a panic while running from the police at the chicken fight, and Ruby kidnaps a baby—thus setting in motion the events of the film. All Creatures Here Below follows the two as they journey across the continental U.S., toward a childhood home in Kansas City where a major part of their shared history is revealed. The film creates a convincing and quite often touching portrait of Ruby and Gensan as they scramble to make their lives count for good in a world that has repeatedly and mercilessly wronged them, but there are also times when the meaning of the film is weighed down by its own gravity.
Gillan and Dastmalchian (the latter of whom also penned the film’s script) do all they can to make their characters sympathetic, even as Ruby and Gensan further and further endanger the infant they’re trying to protect. Gillan makes smart choices in order to make Ruby seem “dumb,” as Gensan repeatedly calls her, but not too dumb. There are times when Ruby’s obliviousness reaches a little too far, like when a cop is tailing them and she keeps drumming on Gensan’s back and trying to get him to play games, but the watchful eyes, sneaker-scuffing and shifting body language of Gillan’s portrayal are solid enough to make Ruby keep feeling like an innocent, even after she commits a nearly incomprehensible crime. The losses in Ruby’s character—the times when she feels less like a main character alongside Gensan, and more like a problem for Gensan to manage, or even like a second child—arise less from Gillan’s own performance and more from what the script offers her.
Dastmalchian’s Gensan is really the star of the show, partially because all of the heavy moments and considerations of the film seem to fall to him. When Ruby isn’t thinking, Gensan is. He’s the one who shoulders the panic over their crimes, the worries about the police, the decisions of how to handle what to do—whether to go to Kansas City, whether to turn themselves in. Their crimes at the beginning committed in tandem, with the scenes cutting between Gensan’s murder at the chicken fight and Ruby’s stealing of the crying baby, which brilliantly foregrounds a progression later in the movie that cuts between Gensan rationalizing their crimes to a friend and Ruby trying to silence the baby in a hotel room. But while the attention is on each of them, Ruby’s kidnapping doesn’t feel as fully explained, beyond the idea that she wants to have a family (Why now? Why this baby?). On the other hand, we spend a lot of time at the chicken fight, and while Gensan’s crime feels just as impulsive as Ruby’s, we’re deeper inside his mind when it happens.
Dastmalchian’s acting is breathtaking, and as with Ruby, the film does a brilliant job making us want to sympathize with Gensan after our introduction to his journey basically involves him killing a man. There are times when the writing feels just a little bit too obvious—like when Ruby says she’s saving the lottery tickets “for when [the baby] grows up,” and there’s a deep, pregnant pause before Gensan replies gravely, “I think they expire”—but Dastmalchian brings a power and force to the role that’s accented by his understated, natural delivery and chemistry with Gillan. The film gains momentum when it focuses in on these strengths and loses momentum when it doesn’t; during one of the most weighted moments of the film, when Gensan is explaining over a payphone why it’s so important that Ruby doesn’t get arrested, the camera is behind his head and we can’t see any of Dastmalchian’s expressions.
The film, and Ruby and Gensan’s relationship, both lack in direct communication, sometimes to their detriment and sometimes in a way that makes them feel real. Indeed, part of the couple’s charm, so to speak, is in their mutual insecurity and inexperience. They’ve never taken care of a kid before, and it seems very possible that the crimes they commit, and the baby’s arrival in their lives, mark the first real juncture at which they’ve needed to have several serious conversations. But they don’t want to have conversations during which their relationship (let alone their personal freedom) might hang in the balance, and in some ways, this is appealing. Even though they’ve got one murder and one kidnapping under their belts, they still love each other enough to not want to talk about it.
In other ways, though, this trend leads to a jarring finale. All Creatures Here Below sings with its dialogue, colorful imagery and up-close, nostalgic, at times even handheld-adjacent camera work, but the blurriness of background information counteracts its effectiveness. Ruby and Gensan’s dark past in Kansas City gets sidelined for a little too long, and when they each commit an additional, even worse crime, it feels sudden, shocking and upsetting. The film has taken pains to make these characters feel sympathetic in spite of their mistakes and the harm they have done to other people; we’re drawn in by their genuinely sweet and tender connection with one another, like when Ruby wraps her arms around Gensan’s neck while he’s driving late at night, or when Gensan names their kidnapped baby Irene. It’s just touching enough that the shocking ending feels brutal and gutting. On the one hand, it feels like this outcome has taken the trajectory of the film seriously: Ruby and Gensan have been making destructive decisions from the start, and maybe they’ve always been doomed. But it also leaves one with the feeling of horror, knowing that there are very real people out there who have faced the levels of abuse, poverty and suffering that Ruby and Gensan have endured, as we watch a story that offers these characters plenty of sympathy but almost no hope.