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edge staff writer


Survival thriller ‘Beast’ a bit of a burden

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Man versus nature is one of our most fundamental stories. There’s a primality to the notion of people, removed from the comfort of their so-called civilization, forced to survive against a natural world that, for whatever reason, seeks to do them harm.

“Beast,” the new film from Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormakur, is just such a story. It pits a man and his family against an animal – in this case, a lion – that has been driven to do them harm. With little understanding of the world into which they have been dropped, they must figure out a way to survive a battle against a foe that has lived its entire life in that same world.

They must do battle with a beast.

Unfortunately, while the underpinnings of the narrative offer that sort of primality, the execution ultimately proves more nonsensical, at times bordering on the cartoonish. When a story relies entirely on the questionable, irrational choices being made by its characters, you’re left with something that never quite works. There are moments of intensity and well-crafted tension, but they are almost entirely undermined by the at-time laughable decision-making to which we are witness.

But hey – Idris Elba punching a lion makes for a pretty high floor.

Dr. Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) is struggling to reconnect with his family following the death of his wife – the two were estranged at the time of her death. In an effort to rebuild his relationships, he brings his daughters Meredith (Iyanna Halley) and Norah (Leah Jeffries) on a trip to their mother’s native South Africa in hopes of helping them engage with their mother’s homeland while also picking up the threads of their fraying bond to him.

Their host is Martin (Sharlto Copley), an old family friend – he was actually the one who introduced Nate to his wife – who is now working as a protector of sorts for the Monapi Game Reserve. As part of the trip, Martin takes them out into the reserve, showing them the vast natural beauty and giving them the chance to see places inaccessible to the general public.

And then all hell breaks loose.

Specifically, they discover that a lion has gone rogue and begun killing any and all human beings that it comes across … and they are now targets.

What follows is a dark and dangerous fight to survive the night, with all of them being pursued – sometimes stealthily, sometimes brazenly – by this vicious beast. Circumstances leave them stranded far from any potential assistance; they have only their wits and what they’ve brought with them to fight off one of nature’s apex predators – a predator that has reasons of its own to seek vengeance against the agents of man. And speaking of the agents of man, well … let’s just say that the African night plays host to more beasts than one.

“Beast” has the elements for a solid survival thriller. As I mentioned, man versus nature is a bone-deep tale; that story is baked into our DNA. You’ve got a couple of quality headliners and some strong supporting performances. And there’s no disputing the stunning beauty of the African landscape, brought to vivid life onscreen.

However, the final product fails to live up to its elements. It’s a classic case of a film being less than the sum of its parts, largely due to a script that relies almost exclusively on characters making poor choices – often, the same poor choices – over and over again. You’ve never seen so many seemingly normal, functioning human beings take so many actions that are, to be frank, stupid. I get it – smart people doing dumb things is the central engine that drives a lot of movies – but “Beast” really pushes the envelope.

Again, I don’t need this to be some sort of complex deconstruction of humanity’s sins against the natural world (though the film makes a couple of feints at deeper meaning before losing interest). However, it’s a lot more fun to watch a movie when you aren’t consistently and constantly baffled by the behavior of its characters.

Now, I’ll grant you that a significant number of sins can be forgiven solely due to the fact that Idris Elba straight up punches a lion at one point. There’s undeniable joy in that. But so much of what we watch play out is patently absurd to the extent that you may actually find yourself laughing at the unintentional comedy of it all; I know I had more than one involuntary laugh escape me over the course of the film’s relatively brief running time. The unstoppability of our feline antagonist tips over into the realm of cartoonish at times – there’s one sequence that feels straight out of Looney Tunes (you’ll know it when you see it) – and it’s tough to square that with the gritty intensity that the film seems to be going for.

It's too bad, because there’s the seed of a better movie in here. Hell, you’ve got Idris Elba, who manages to be engaging even when there’s no explanation for the choices he’s making. I occasionally found myself wondering what he might have done with a script that was even 10% better. You can’t polish a turd, but my man Idris sure does try. It’s nice to see Sharlto Copley working, even if it does seem that he has handed squarely in the “we need a South African” pigeonhole as far as Hollywood is concerned. He too does a fair job with what he’s been given. I feel the most sympathy for the plight of Halley and Jeffries, who seem like talented actors, yet are asked to sell some genuinely jarringly dumb moments. In short, it’s not the cast’s fault.

Is there entertainment value to be derived from “Beast”? Absolutely. Is some of that value perhaps unintentional? Also yes. It’s a film whose whole arc rests on a cascade of inexplicable decisions, making it difficult for us to fully engage with it. There are some thrills, but it’s likely the (inappropriate) laughs that will linger in the memory.

[2.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 22 August 2022 10:25


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