Fingernails (United States/United Kingdom, 2023)

November 02, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Fingernails Poster

Fingernails, the English-language debut of Greek director Christos Nikou, boasts some intriguing ideas but the execution is (at best) uneven. With an uncertain screenplay and poor world-building, the film relies almost exclusively on the performances by (and the relationship between) lead actors Jessie Buckley and Riz Ahmed. Those two are good enough that many of the film’s plot problems are easily dismissed but there are times when even top-notch acting can’t boost the viewer over the increasingly high barrier demanded by the willing suspension of disbelief. Fingernails has a strong premise and well-defined characters but is missing too much connective tissue to fully satisfy.

The story unfolds in the near future although, likely because of budgetary limitations, it looks like either the present or the recent past. The science fiction contrivance/innovation is that a test has been developed that allows couples who take it to determine (without error) whether they have found true love. Taking the test requires the (painful) extraction of one fingernail. There are three possible outcomes: 100% (true love by both partners), 50% (true love by only one partner), or 0% (no true love).

Anna (Jessie Buckley) is hired by Love Institute founder Duncan (Luke Wilson) as an apprentice to one of his top testers, Amir (Riz Ahmed). Anna is a true believer – she and her husband, Ryan (Jeremy Allen White), have taken the test and received the 100% seal of approval. Yet, despite being scientifically deemed compatible, Anna and Ryan are experiencing the same kind of foundational cracks that occur in many long-term relationships: their professions of love are perfunctory, their libidos are stagnant, and little lies (especially on Anna’s part) come easily. Despite knowing that Ryan is “the one” for her, she finds herself increasingly attracted to Amir, who is also allegedly married to his 100% match. Anna’s feelings for Amir clash with her acceptance of the test’s authenticity and create tension both on and off the job. For his part, Amir is equally conflicted although his status is in many ways more tragic than Anna’s.

Like Past Lives, Fingernails explores the nexus between love and destiny and whether the concept of being “the one” is a permanent or temporary designation. To the extent that it dabbles in these issues, the narrative is engaging and offers the viewer an opportunity to ponder some of the existential questions posed by the idea. Overall, it’s not as rich or emotionally wrenching as Past Lives but it is more accessible and requires less heavy lifting.

The problem is that a lot of the details aren’t well thought-out. Duncan’s assertion is that there can be only one “true love” per person but there’s no rationale for this concept nor are things addressed like widowhood and/or betrayal. The movie doesn’t discuss the meaning of true love – it is chemical, spiritual, emotional, or some combination? In many movies, that wouldn’t matter but in this one, it’s germane. The story’s credibility is stretched increasingly thin as events progress and the decisions of the characters make less sense. No one challenges the test and we don’t understand the government’s position about all of this. It’s a mish-mash of ideas thrown together that fail to coalesce into a whole.

One saving grace is that both of the lead actors are in top form. With her Raggedy Ann haircut, Jessie Buckley (replacing Carey Mulligan, who was initially signed but had to drop out) mixes enthusiasm with vulnerability and crafts a believable character arc on the journey into emotional uncertainty and turmoil. Riz Ahmed is terrific as the buttoned-down man with a core of longing and loneliness that occasionally shows itself. The two have the requisite chemistry – something lacking (by intention, I assume) between Buckley and Jeremy Allen White, who has the thankless job of playing the increasingly unloved husband.

Ultimately, Fingernails is an argument against the inflexibility of monogamy. In the world postulated by Christos Nikou and his co-writers, Sam Steiner & Stavros Raptis, people could be matched at birth by having the test and would never have to worry about dating (except for recreational, non-matrimonial purposes). The concept is naïve but it at least allows the characters and viewers to question the nature of love and whether it is possible for a pure, romantic form of it to span an entire lifetime. Although engaging at times, Fingernails is ultimately frustrating.

Fingernails (United States/United Kingdom, 2023)

Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 2023-11-03
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Genre: Drama/Science Fiction
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.00:1