Beast (2022) Directed by Baltasar Kormákur
It’s easy to discern exactly what will go wrong in a film that employs the conventional parameters of survival cinema in an engaging scenario where all the situational implausibility is ‘realistically’ enjoyable without you even realizing it. At first glance, Beast turns out to be the kind of flick brimming with nifty mechanisms to give you pulse-pounding, adrenaline-infused entertainment, where human survival in a situation of extreme danger becomes the spectacle of fear, tension-filled emotions conveyed with an identifiably physical fear of the unknown and of what can injure us at lethal levels. That only happens in its surface layers of “survival horror movie using persuasive clichés deftly and effectively”. In its deeper, harder-to-perceive layers, there is a film stumbling over its own nature, a subdued and simplistic script that never demonstrates the enormous potential that the conspicuous layers luminously manifest in vibrant style and entertainment value.
Beast is too clumsy to be considered one of the best in the genre of “monstrous animals hunting humans,” yet it is the most self-assured, the most committed to the material it has and resolves the rusty clichés of the genre into an unpredictable kinetic rigmarole that makes the most of its limited intelligence.
Dr. Nate Samuels, played with stoic strength and breathtaking masculine bravado by Idris Elba, travels with his two daughters to South Africa, to the balmy and biodiverse Mopani Reserve. Nate has just lost his wife and mother of his two daughters, all three are still trying to get over the bereavement and find this trip to be a good natural therapy to ease the pain of the tragedy. Once in South Africa, Martin Battles, played by Sharlto Copley, receives his old friend and hosts them in his home. Martin is a biologist, who went to college with Nate, and was also a close friend of Nate’s wife since they were children, so more than friends, the relationship between Nate and Martin, and Martin’s relationship with Nate’s daughters, is that of family. The morning after their first night at Martin’s house, they all set out on a jeep expedition to go on safari and contemplate the scenic beauty that the animal world has to offer.
However, the area they choose to contemplate the natural landscapes and wild animals, are places where very hostile and dangerous illegal hunters lurk, and as if that were not enough, there is a feline beast, of formidable size, stalking the surroundings and killing whoever it finds in its territory. Anyone who knows how a situation like this unfolds will know that everything bad that should not have happened happens and so, as if it were a curse or just bad luck, Nate’s vacation turns into a dead end, where an aggressive lion will try to hunt them down no matter how much it costs him.
Beast tests its own material by pushing the traditionally stationary into mobile, itinerant, zigzagging territory. From the outset, one can, understandably, misconstrue its premise as with most films that fulfill these narrative characteristics. Although the plot has the jeep as its unit of place, it rarely relies on its physical use as an instrument of storytelling; Baltasar Kormákur’s fresh and restless direction vibrates with concentrated and productive creativity, translating the stereotypical into cinematically complex and functional spaces. Beast could have been just another film about a family trapped in a car stalked by some threat, however, Beast is the film that seeks the multipurpose of its vast and wild scenery, leaving the common immobility and going for the kinetic and energetic exploration as the only and most suitable resource to articulate suspense.
The characters and their relationships to the unfortunate events link a metaphorical treatment to the poignancy of the situation with personal tragedy; I’m not one who usually prefers connotative treatment to emotional procedures in a film as straightforward as this one, but they ostensibly serve a function of automatic identification and sympathy from us to them. Idris Elba’s active and rapidly athletic performance in particular exhibits much of the metaphorical. One can note a direct relationship of his tragedy to that of the lion, both stripped of a loved one and subjected to endure everlasting pain; the level of empathy visibly tells us that the vicious lion, ravenous for vengeance and blood, is not the culprit, much less the villain of this story, nor is Nate the hero, the villains are the hunters who materialized this irrepressible rage. Beast holds an anti-hunting commentary, which really looks, feels and sounds superfluous.
What ends up leaving one in awe, though not necessarily in admiration, is the multilateral design of the serpentine camera movements, most of which are tracking shots that do not cease or continue in a linear fashion but rather wander through a huge percentage of the characters’ space, circling and whirling in dizzying rhythms. At times they reach a peak of exasperation, at others they are simply unnecessary, but for the most part, this flashy execution evokes peril, dreadful energy and hopelessness in the protagonists. There is a lion stealthily watching them, the characters don’t see it and neither do we, yet strikingly the visual design concentrates a menacing game that seems as if the lion and the fears possess the camera, adding more life and ferocity to the film’s patchy running time.
Complaining about the myriad flaws that can be found in Beast is counterproductive. This film is crafted with the best of intentions, it aims to entertain without its absurdity and implausibility completely encroaching on its suspenseful scope. It functions when it’s a gripping survival horror film, it goes into decline when the visceral becomes more specious silliness, but even so, the effects have potency even in its more mediocre moments.