Which of these two thematic elements do you suppose is the big audience draw for Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur’s man-vs.-nature thriller Beast? The story of a man striving to heal his grief-stricken family, or the sight of Idris Elba punching the daylights out of a (CGI) lion? If you chose the first option, you’re clearly a lovely, optimistic person with great faith in the human spirit. Everyone else, congratulations! You’re deeply in tune with our baser elements as a species, and you’ve probably also seen the trailer.
Beast delivers on everything it promises, both for better and worse. Elba plays Nate Samuels, a medical doctor who, it appears, has trouble expressing his feelings, and maybe even feeling them in the first place. He has traveled to the South African bush with his two adolescent daughters, outgoing Meredith (Iyana Halley) and the more anxiety-ridden Norah (Leah Jeffries), both of whom are rather angry at him. Their mother, born in South Africa, has recently died after falling ill with cancer; they feel their father failed her, and them, by not working hard enough at the marriage. The Africa visit is intended to bring everyone together, and Nate also wants them to have some sense of where their mother came from. Plus, this is Nate’s chance to reconnect with an old friend, Martin (Sharlto Copley), the man who had introduced Nate to his wife. Martin, the warden of a nature preserve, is the sort of smart, amiable guy who gets hugged by full-grown (CGI) lions he raised from cubs and then released, Born Free-style. He also, it appears, has no patience with poachers, who mow down whole families of lions for their teeth, claws and bones, which fetch high prices on the black market.
The movie opens with a bunch of said poachers happily gunning down a whole pride. And then—surprise!—an angry male springs from nowhere like a ghost avenger, clawing and mauling every human he can get his mighty paws on. This big cat’s reign of terror is vast; uncharacteristically, according to lion expert Martin, he has wiped out an entire village, simply because he associates all humans with the enemy poachers. While Martin is showing Nate and the girls around the bush he loves so much, this super predator—who kills but does not eat his prey—gets them in his sights and will not back down.
Kormákur (Everest, 101 Reykavik) is a gifted action director, and he’s packed Beast with tense moments that you may find pleasurable or unbearable, depending on your tolerance for this kind of thing. (I’m in the middle, and watched parts of the film, including an ewky artery-cauterization sequence, through splayed fingers.) The script, by Ryan Engle, from a story by Jaime Primak Sullivan, gives Elba quite a few chances to do all those things Elba, a charismatic and sensitive actor, does so well: in a scene where, after an evening of too many whiskeys, he confesses to Martin his regrets about letting his wife and family down, he draws anguish from the depths of his soul. His reddened eyes clue us in to his turbulent self-loathing, his sense of having betrayed his own idea of everything a man ought to be.
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But come, now: you really came for (CGI) lion-wrestling, didn’t you? And there’s plenty. Elba kicking the lion, who has invaded the stalled truck in which Nate and his terrified family are huddled for safety. Elba tussling with the lion, desperately stabbing at it with a knife as the beast’s scimitar claws grab and gouge his legs. Elba clutching silently to a tree as his surly nemesis, his nose and jaws bloodied both from his killing spree and being kicked and punched so many times, pokes around wondering where oh where his prey has gone. Kormákur stages these battles for maximum pow effect. They’re often unnerving, but they’re also repetitive.
And in the end Beast is, frankly, sort of dumb. The scenery is extraordinary: Kormákur and cinematographers Philippe Rousselot and Baltasar Breki Samper capture the majesty of the bush, with its assertive lavender-gold sunsets and dramatically angular silhouetted trees. But even though the creature who gives the film its title is very bad, he is also very sad, and it’s hard not to feel sympathy for him. With his battered limbs, his patchy fur, his blood-smeared, battle-scarred nose, he’s the monster you can’t help identifying with, wronged by humans at every turn. The always-appealing Copley has the best line in the movie, one in which he recognizes Monsieur Lion’s pain even as he acknowledges that the animal’s highly anthropomorphized anger makes him too great a threat to human life. The lion in Beast is not real, and his feelings and behavior are made-up human constructs. But with his wounded grandeur, he nearly steals the show from Elba. There’s just no matching his Big Cat Energy.
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