Directed by Baltasar Kormákur
Written by Ryan Engle and Jamie Primak Sullivan
It's not Baltasar Kormákur's only thing—he's made action movies, he's made comedies—but the thing he's probably best at is the survival thriller. His career is a couple of decades old by this point, but for this we need only go back to 2012's The Deep; it was not exactly his "international breakthrough" (he'd already made two American movies by then, one of which I've heard of), but it did almost get him a Best Foreign Film nomination (Iceland submitted it on his behalf, and it was shortlisted), and it kicked off this phase of his evolution as a filmmaker. And yet, "thing he's best at" or not, that evolution has been marked by a process that feels more blindly groping than purposeful; movies about survival against daunting odds constitute nearly a quarter of his filmography—they constitute a decisive majority of his films since 2012—but each previous effort has only felt like a tentative step towards this.
If I had to hazard a guess, Kormákur was hesitant to change the unadorned, stereotypically Nordic, and notionally-elevated docudrama style he'd brought to The Deep, not out of any deep-seated sense of propriety—when it comes to his action movies, he's never had any apparent objection to populism (or crap)—but either way, each successive survival film he made feels like an experiment, each one fiddling with a different approach. The Deep had been largely austere, much less of a "survival film" than you would think (indeed, only the middle third of its hour and a half runtime actually concerns itself with its maritime disaster procedural, and it's curiously anti-procedural even at that); 2015's Everest, presumptively still Kormákur's next-best movie, is vastly more of a conventionalized "disaster flick," but still circumscribed by its true-story realism, and serving more as a series of actor's reels on the subject of dying and talking on radios than a thriller, even if nothing about what it aspires to be is substandard. 2018's Adrift, however, signaled a willingness, if not yet the ability, to spread beyond the confines of the docudrama chronicle. There's a huge amount to love in that film, but it's a damnable misfire, too, starting with a calamitous flashback structure inherited from its heroine's memoir, compounded and aggravated by a dumbshit twist that wasn't in her memoir, and which would've been better as an openly-expressed narrative conceit. You could earnestly wonder why they bothered paying Tami Oldham Ashcraft for her incredible true story of survival, since you can't copyright "couple experiences hardship on a broken boat," and that isn't what Ashcraft's story was about anyway.
Maybe Beast brings us Kormákur in purified form, then; or maybe, since Kormákur isn't necessarily a filmmaker I respect without caveats (though he's getting there), he was hijacked by his brand-new team of craftsmen towards their own ends, for it pleases me to imagine that talented journeyman cinematographer Philippe Rousselot wanted somebody to finally notice his work, and editor Jay Rabinowitz, an editor whose name I actually recognize, wanted to stretch himself, and that's why Beast, though almost undoubtedly Kormákur's crowning achievement in or out of survival thrills, only moderately resembles anything in Kormákur's previous filmography (and then mainly in its appreciation for exotic locales, and in the line you can draw from The Deep and its flourish of 8mm flashbacks to the flourish of black-and-white still photography here); well, whatever happened, Beast is more exhilaratingly emblematic of muscular 21st century digital cinematography than muscular 21st century digital cinematography even deserves, and a terrific exercise in whatever it is that film editors do when the movie involves neither film nor, to an unusual degree, edits. At least as importantly, Beast throws off the chafing shackles of the true story format, for Kormákur has at last seen the light: movies are not strictly for relating things that did happen, but for things that probably wouldn't. Accordingly, it seizes upon a scenario that's grounded in some strained plausibility but isn't too realistic, and I know you need me to say it, so here it is, "Dude, it's the movie where Idris Elba punches a lion in the faaaaace."
Beast, therefore, is at least as much a descendant of one of the more gratifying lineages of 2010s cinema, the revival of the mid-budget animal attack film, and is surely the best since that revival began in earnest, back in 2016 with The Shallows. (I shall withhold making the claim for the time being, but it might actually be a scoche better.) And there is a certain self-superiority that people bring to these movies, such as compels them to describe this one as "Idris Elba punches a lion in the face," that I don't really jibe with; I suppose it's part of the fun, but it belies a certain willingness to throw certain movies onto the pile marked "unserious garbage," which honestly might be one of the reasons American cinema is swimming in unserious garbage. Still, it's an assumption that some movies are inherently "bad," or at least not art, and can therefore only be "enjoyable" and graded on a narrow band of enjoyability, at that. It gets into rankling questions of critical philosophy (and just how much taste-signaling, the fundamental mode of great swathes of film writing, irritates me), but let's leave it at this: it blunts the appreciation that I think should be given to truly well-built movies of any stripe. And Beast is immaculately well-built.
Anyhow, this is how Idris Elba gets put in a position to bop that lion, while getting bopped a few times himself: Nate Samuels (that's Elba) is a doctor—I forget at this point if he's an oncologist for maximum irony—and he has, by a technicality, been recently widowed, in that he and his wife, a famed photographer, separated not long before she was diagnosed with the aggressive and advanced strain of cancer that killed her. Whether or not his daughters Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Sava Jeffries) would have regarded their parents' divorce or their mother's death with any particular stoicism as individual events, "Mer" has taken what looks to her like her father's abandoment of her dying mother even less well. We meet the Samuelses in the midst of Nate's attempt at something like a hail mary, sweeping his kids off to Limpopo in South Africa, their mother's homeland, perhaps likewise hoping that in Mer's case the landscapes and fauna will inspire her own penchant for photography (though in no instance does he seem to be able to communicate this to her, nor does she act as if the sentiment would be welcome even as she complains he shows no interest in her hobby, and this is altogether a less unsubtle screenplay than you would either guess, or than it sometimes presents itself as). Well, Nate reconnects with their old family friend Martin Battles (Sharlto Copley), a park ranger, who's delighted to take them on a good old-fashioned safari. Yet soon after starting out, they are met with horror—a village, silent and seemingly empty. On further investigation, Martin and Nate discover the mutilated bodies of its inhabitants. Unbeknownst to them, but knownst to us, as it comprised the film's opening scene, a family of lions was exterminated by a gang of poachers the night before. They left but one survivor, its patriarch, who has determined that his shattered pride will be repaid with human lives, and not only the guilty, but every human he comes across, killing every person he sees until such time as people manage to kill him; and our ill-fated heroes have stumbled directly into his path.
This is tight, and it's even in danger of being too tight; there is at least a tinge of predictability to this scenario as a whole—I mean, you presumably wouldn't need to watch it to know how its family dynamic shakes out, and while that's an arid and shitty way to approach stories, we do live in a world with a lot of arid, shitty people—and even on a micro level there is perhaps a tiny bit too much overt polish to the screenwriting, which is more visibly written than one may prefer in terms of just how obviously some elements are set-ups for later pay-off. But if it errs on the side of cleanliness, that's leagues better than the alternative of sloppiness, and even so, there's just enough detail that manages to remain firmly fixed in the realm of texture rather than plot scaffolding, to the extent that Beast mildly shocked me when Mer's photography has no bearing on anything besides her character and some pretty black-and-white images—I rather like that the work was put in to make Mer noticeably good at her hobby—and, anyway, it never Rear Windows its way into the Samuelses' tactical playbook against their leonine foe.
I like, also, the quiet playfulness with identity: we have Americans who are "African-American" even in a stricter-than-normal sense, taking a trip to their native soil, where the actual "native" is an Afrikaner, with Nate's daughters able to speak a little Tsonga but also American enough (and teenaged and tweenaged enough) that they can approach a village like a tourist attraction that exists for their benefit, neither hesitating, nor even realizing they're doing it, when they march into other people's homes and start fiddling around with their stuff; this scenario is boilerplate in its generalities, but in the same way that it's conventional wisdom now, but it took ten or twenty years to figure out, that Jaws was a triptych study of white masculinity in 1975, maybe Beast isn't being given enough credit for the uniqueness of its own specifics in 2022, and I'd rather not wait decades (if it ever happens at all, because this is no Jaws-sized hit) for academics to discover there might be interesting aspects of reclamation and cultural synthesis to this. (Maybe I'm even making this up—it was written by two white people, not that this would be dispositive even under our current culturally-solipsistic artistic paradigm, and Kormákur is, like, the polar opposite of an African—but, hey, to be sure, we could ask producer Will Packer, for Beast feels like it could be the ultimate expression of his long-held vision for black genre films.)
It is a genre film, though; and crucially, if never in such a sharply-drawn way it threatens to become a character study in genre clothes, that cast emerges as easy-to-root-for individuals. Copley and "Uncle Martin" is a bigger factor than I would've anticipated going in; he has an easy camaraderie with the Samuelses (and on a different wavelength for each), and ultimately gets some really flavorful grace notes, for Martin does not have it in him to blame an animal, even in extremis and even when its premeditated cruelty is almost human in its contours. Meanwhile, Halley and Jeffries are given just enough space to create some fairly vivid little characters themselves despite, structurally, just being the things Nate has to defend. It's slightly remarkable, anyway, that Jeffries, who doesn't get to take recourse to Halley's "brusque, sullen teen" template, manages to make herself distinct in ways that aren't particularly stereotyped, tenuously occupying the role of the family's remaining arbitrator between her dad and the compulsive resentment eating up her sister. And Elba is downright amazing, investing so much particularity and scared, soulful humanity into such an extravagantly stock "single dad drowning in unwanted emotion" character that I'm not sure I want to call it "stock"—Nate feels sad and responsible that the woman he impregnated twice died, and he loves his children, which I guess is all pretty ordinary, but if it were in a movie that wasn't about a man-killing lion, Elba's dramatics wouldn't feel stock—and beyond that he navigates the survival thriller his family vacation becomes with an utterly sympathetic indecision and cautiousness that is only slowly, painfully ground down into grim action man determination, enough so that, to my mind, it should have buried that "ELBA punch LION" logline even if that was the easiest way to sell the film.
This is all great, but maybe not what makes it great, which swings us back 'round to craft, though in touching on the characterization I suppose that it is the most identifiably Kormákur thing, in that even in a slim 93 minute package, he's willing to allow his characters dreams and personality. But the main thing, of course, is how he and his team build their thriller out from that, and much as in The Shallows, though this time in the aesthetics rather than the themes, there is more than a pinch of Gravity's DNA in this particular survival film. As it's become easier, the "long take" has edged up to the point of becoming an aesthetic joke—shit, it's almost more of a televisual hallmark now than the filmmaker's coup it once was—but Kormákur, Rousselot, and Rabinowitz have an actual strategy about how they'll use it, mainly in terms of merely longer-than-usual takes, never allowing it to become a gimmick, and always permitting themselves the flexibility to deploy conventional cuts when that's more useful. It's understatedly elegant throughout; it consistently resists the urge to overchoreograph or overcompose (but not underchoreograph or undercompose either), so that it feels perfectly natural at the same time it feels extraordinarily oppressive to find ourselves trapped in these long, unblinking blocks of cinema.
The basic thrust is obvious enough—to exhaust and enervate you—but it's exhausting and enervating in the best way, the camera moving in circles and the focal plane sweeping back and forth in accord with our characters' limited perspectives, anxiously searching for a danger that always has multiple avenues of approach—they spend a lot of time in a car, which would be better if the windows weren't smashed, or if the car were still capable of motion, or if Martin hadn't been the first to be attacked and left as literal bait on a small islet in a marsh (or if Mer were not more willing to recklessly try to help him than her father is)—and, for that matter, the danger they face is one that can't be overcome even if you do see it coming. There's a permanent sense that even though we are constantly looking, the lion is just-as-constantly right outside our field of vision—it's one of the more intelligent and deliberate recent applications of a 'Scope aspect ratio as a result, the horizontal expanse emphasizing all the more how much is still outside the frame—and Beast allows us to strew in that sick feeling of dread. Of course, it turns out when the lion actually is in the frame it's even worse. Beast isn't nearly as sparing with its CGI lion as I might've made it sound—it's often just a glimpse, but it's often right there, too—and it gets a shocking amount of mileage out of its $36 million budget. I'm deeply convinced that we need to cut mid-budget movies (even big-budget movies) a break, and stop getting so hung up on "bad" CGI; but I don't need to make that speech today. Beast boasts surprisingly good CGI, persuasive enough, anyway, that I'm only slightly ashamed to say that the finale, where the lion is in no sense hiding anymore, made me physically wince, and almost cry and maybe inwardly mewl a little bit. And for the record, I almost got into a freaking fistfight with an especially dickish and especially large fellow audience member after the show, and didn't back down from that, so, yeah, Beast really must work. It's "the perfect August movie," as someone might glibly say, but that doesn't come close to giving it the full credit it earns.