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Beast Review: Lion Taming 101

  • It's genuinely harrowing at times
  • Immersive, sumptuous visuals
  • Strong work from its two leads
  • It's laughable more often than not
  • The characters repeatedly exhibit convenient idiocy
  • It feels strangely long for such a short feature

Would "Jaws" be as compelling if Steven Spielberg seemed singularly concerned with making the audience root for the shark? Such a tortured thought experiment appears to drive the heart of Baltasar Kormákur's "Beast," a survival thriller that mars its engaging visuals and strong performances by relying on shoddy screenwriting designed to do little more than make even the most empathetic viewer long for its core cast to be swallowed whole by a vengeful lion. But surely that wasn't the end goal, right?

The film, starring Idris Elba as widower who takes his daughters to visit South Africa where their recently deceased mother grew up, begins in earnest as a meditation on the nature of grief before ostensibly literalizing the internal conflicts befalling this familial unit into the very real and very harrowing struggle to not get killed in the jungle. But once the characters are introduced and their respective traumas have been established, the film's whip pan into largely real time suspense replaces its well drawn and complex protagonists with frustrating and idiotic doppelgangers, each making exponentially more foolish decisions to foster artificial tension.

It's a real shame, given the strengths inherent to Kormákur's visual approach. One can easily imagine a more affecting version of this film drawn from a smarter script, or, conversely, a more fun iteration borne from a more exploitative approach. As is, "Beast" feels too haunting to have a ball with, but far too silly for its mawkish melodrama to truly resonate. 

But it's got a strong enough foundation...

Papa don't preach

When we meet Dr. Nate Samuels (Elba), he seems like any other number of forgettable Idris Elba leading roles. He's handsome, stoic and seems surprisingly excited about taking his daughters Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Sava Jeffries) on a trip to their mother's birthplace. There's the usual pleasantries with their guide, friend of the family Martin (Sharlto Copley), and the standard gags about the girls having to survive without wi-fi or cellular service. But it isn't until their first dinner in South Africa that it becomes clear this isn't a regular getaway, but a Hail Mary from a man who has no idea how to relate to his children throughout their shared grieving process.

Nate and his wife split not long before she fell ill, so to his children, he abandoned her when she needed him the most. Two teenagers are not going to be the best arbiters of judging an adult relationship's endless complexity, no, but Elba's eyes, quietly displaying untold regret beneath his crumbling facade of stern fortitude, prove their accusations aren't far from his own feelings of guilt. 

But unpacking all those thorny emotions wouldn't warrant a title like "Beast" or a marketing campaign akin to a jungle-set "Godzilla vs. Kong," setting everyone's favorite go-to fan casting subject against a literal lion for... what, patriarchal supremacy? It turns out that Martin is an anti-poacher, and that big game hunters have been plaguing this community. The vengeful beast from the film's violent prologue, featuring the titular creature absolutely murking a bunch of gun-toting mercenaries, is on a bloody quest to eat and maim any living thing in his path, having lost his (literal) pride. 

The film could certainly do a better job setting this collision course up like a prize fight, but falters where it matters most. There's an obvious thematic through-line between Nate and the lion's grief, their misplaced outbursts, and their inability to process the tragedy that has now defined them. Obviously, a guy snapping at his kids and being a little too curt conversationally is leagues away from a wild animal eating innocent people, but the implied kinship is there. 

The film's script, from writer Ryan Engle, utterly fails to thread the family drama throughout the genuinely harrowing survival thriller "Beast" abruptly transforms into, such that it begins to feel like eschewing all the early weepiness to get to the fireworks factory even sooner might have been the better path. But it's also apparent that Kormákur, as a director, had very little interest in exploring that side of the narrative to begin with, as evidenced by him coming to life once Nate's family and the lion first cross paths.

From there, he and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, for lack of a better term, begin to stunt and stunt hard on the viewer, luxuriating in weaponizing immersive camera movements and patient long takes as the set-up for repeatedly bludgeoning the audience with jump-scare punchlines. Somehow, the dedication to photographing the surrounding environment with such verve and majesty aids in keeping this immensely effective trick from growing stale. 

But unfortunately, it's just not enough...

What one man can do, another can do

At its best, "Beast" and its dedication to capturing the ferocity and danger of the animal kingdom echoes films like "The Edge," "The Grey," or "The Ghost and The Darkness," but where each of those films have central figures with captivating arcs, this film often functions like a particularly lazy slasher movie. At first, Nate being so ill-equipped for the wild provides a vulnerability that makes him relatable, but as Martin (the only person here who has any useful skills for being trapped in the middle of nowhere with a killer lion) gets sidelined, this unprepared patriarch enters an ongoing contest with his petrified children to see who can be the dumbest, most difficult to root for individual in the picture. 

It's almost impressive how much "Beast" mirrors a low-effort "Halloween" or "Friday The 13th" sequel, with the lion standing in for Michael Myers or Jason, goading an exponentially more annoyed audience into craving as gruesome a comeuppance imaginable for the death-wish dummies who have unfortunately replaced the interesting and understandable protagonists of the first act.

This ineffective screenwriting drags down even the most thrilling set pieces, repeatedly sucking the air out of any enthralling sequence Kormákur stages by reminding you that, all things considered, maybe the bloodthirsty lion has a point or two and it wouldn't be the worst thing if the viewer never had to hear anyone related to Nate repeating the stupidest thoughts and decisions ad nauseam. 

Along the way, there's some redeeming qualities, for sure. Copley, in particular, continues his never ending streak of underrated supporting turns. Elba, an actor who seems to have the worst eye for good screenplays, relative to his talent and charm, makes the most of his underwritten hero, even if the final battle with the lion in "Beast" is one of the most laughable displays on screen in all of 2022. There's even some touching moments between Nate and his daughters trying to work out their respective frustrations with one another. But once the action heats up, everyone just behaves too embarrassingly for much of the remaining runtime to be taken seriously, much less enjoyed.

"Beast" is the kind of movie that may have been forgivable "in the before times," but for a theatrical marketplace starving for product strong enough to get cautious moviegoers out of the house on a more regular basis, it's exactly the kind of late summer/fall doldrums dump release this industry can't properly sustain post-pandemic. Maybe some day everyone's collective standards will once again lower sufficiently to support throwaway flicks like this one, but for now, good luck remembering "Beast" six months from now.