By Emma Weidmann | Staff Writer
NOTE: This review contains a few spoilers.
Hulu’s “Fresh,” starring Sebastian Stan and Daisy Edgar Jones, is the newest psychological horror on streaming media. The most prominent and noticeable aspect of this movie is how graphic it is. If you have a weak stomach, or if seeing intense gore is upsetting to you, “Fresh” may not sit well. But viewers should be careful not to let the shock value distract them from what is really there — a gut-wrenchingly sad movie that manipulates your sense of empathy.
Horror tends to be formulaic. “Fresh” isn’t an exception, but that doesn’t necessarily make it bad. In fact, a lot of viewers will find comfort in common tropes and cliches because movies like this are so deeply grotesque and unsettling. Viewers want to feel like they have an idea of what’s going to happen next. “Fresh” balances predictability and the element of surprise masterfully.
Some of the first red flags appear during the scene in which Steve (Sebastian Stan) invites Noa (Daisy Edgar Jones) to his cabin. The two have just recently begun dating, and he is the Prince Charming that Noa has been waiting for. But when he invites her on a fancy weekend getaway, it becomes easy to spot his manipulation. He knows that she really likes him and has been alone for a very long time. He takes advantage of her desperation for a relationship because she knows that to refuse him could ruin what is so fragile and new. At the same time, she knows that saying yes is risky and puts a lot of trust in someone that she just met. She agrees to go anyway.
There are moments when Noa first arrives at his house in the woods that she has doubts about his character, but decides to ignore her intuition because she wants him to be as perfect as he seems. She convinces herself that Steve is an earnest, genuine person who wants to spend time with her, because there is no other way for her to rationalize why she is ignoring her instincts.
The characters often have these moments of cognitive dissonance, holding beliefs that are inconsistent with their behavior. When confronted with this dilemma, people will do the mental gymnastics required to make their behavior fit their beliefs. That can even mean changing their belief system entirely, as Steve does.
Steve is characterized by his extreme cruelty, but also by his ability to compartmentalize and rationalize his behavior. When he was younger, he had moments when he struggled with cognitive dissonance. He knew that it was wrong to eat human beings, but he found himself insatiable. After he eats meat for the first time, he finds ways to rationalize why it isn’t bad to do what he does. Steve tells Noa that he actually becomes one with his victims, and that it’s really a beautiful thing. He rambles about how these women selflessly give themselves up to him, that it is a sacrifice that they make.
One of the most potent moments in the movie is when Noa opens up a magazine and finds a little note from a woman telling her to stay vigilant and use Steve’s affection and trust to her advantage, and signed her name. Noa takes her advice and gains Steve’s trust enough for him to show her his shrine of personal items that he took from each of his victims. Noa recognizes the name from the magazine and knows that the woman who wrote to her was unable to escape. It was deeply sad because the women that Steve kidnapped used their last moments to try to leave their mark and help whoever comes next. These women touch the people around them even in their isolation and suffering.
That is what makes “Fresh” a truly psychological horror. Take away all of the fake blood and body parts and the viewer is left with a story devoid of hope for almost its entire run time. This movie stays with you, and the longer it does, the more upsetting it becomes.