Uwhich of these two thematic elements do you think is the big audience for Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur’s man-versus-nature thriller Beast? The story of a man who seeks to heal his grief-stricken family, or the sight of Idris Elba pierce the daylights out of (CGI) a lion? If you chose the first option, you are obviously a wonderful, optimistic person with great faith in the human spirit. Everyone else, congratulations! You’re deeply in tune with our base elements as a species, and you’ve probably seen the trailer too.
Beast delivers on everything it promises, for better or for worse. Elba plays Nate Samuels, a doctor who seems to have trouble expressing his feelings and maybe even feeling them in the first place. He has traveled to the South African bush with his two teenage daughters, the estranged Meredith (Ianna Halley) and the more troubled Nora (Leah Jeffries), both of whom are quite angry with him. Their mother, born in South Africa, recently died after contracting cancer; they feel their father failed her and them by not putting enough effort into the marriage. The visit to Africa is meant to bring everyone together, and Nate also wants them to have some idea of where their mother came from. Plus, it’s Nate’s chance to reconnect with an old friend, Martin (Sharlto Copley), the man who introduced Nate to his wife. Martin, a nature reserve ranger, is a smart, kind boy who is hugged by full-grown (CGI) lions that he raised from cubs and then released, Born free– style. It also seems to have no patience for poachers who mow down entire families of lions for their teeth, claws and bones, which fetch high prices on the black market.
Idris Elba (left) deals with the chaos caused by an angry lion
Courtesy of Universal
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The film opens with a bunch of said poachers happily destroying an entire pride. And then — surprise! — an angry man leaps out of nowhere like a ghostly avenger, scratching and tearing at every human he can touch with his powerful paws. The fear of this big cat is immense; unusually, according to lion expert Martin, it destroyed an entire village simply because it linked all the people to the enemy poachers. As Martin shows Nate and the girls around the bush he loves so much, this super predator—who kills but doesn’t eat his prey—has them in his sights and won’t back down.
Kormakur (Everest, 101 Reykjavik) is a talented action director and is full Beast with tense moments that you may find enjoyable or unbearable, depending on your tolerance for this sort of thing. (I’m halfway through, and watched parts of the film, including a cameo cauterizing an artery, with fingers crossed.) The screenplay, by Ryan Angle, from a story by Jaime Primack Sullivan, gives Elba plenty of chances to do all those things that Elba, a charismatic and sensitive actor, he does so well: in a scene in which, after an evening of too much whiskey, he confesses to Martin his regrets for letting down his wife and family, he draws anguish from the depths of his soul. His reddened eyes point us to his raging self-loathing, his feeling that he has betrayed his own idea of what a man should be.
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But come on now: you really came for the (CGI) lion fight, didn’t you? And there are many. Elba kicks the lion, which has invaded the stranded truck in which Nate and his terrified family huddle for safety. Elba wrestles with the lion, desperately stabbing it with a knife as the claws of the beast’s scythe grab it and slice through its legs. Elba, silently clinging to a tree while his grim foe, his nose and jaws bloodied from his kill and kicked and punched so many times, spun around wondering where, oh where, his prey had gone . Kormákur arranges these battles for maximum powerful effect. They are often unnerving, but also repetitive.
At the end Beast is, frankly, kind of dumb. The scenery is incredible: Kormákur and cinematographers Philippe Rousselot and Baltasar Breki Samper capture the majesty of the bush, with its insistent lavender-gold sunsets and dramatically angular tree silhouettes. But even though the creature that gives the film its title is very bad, it’s also very sad and it’s hard not to feel sympathy for him. With his battered limbs, his disheveled fur, his bloodied, battle-scarred nose, he’s the monster you can’t help but identify with, wronged by humans at every turn. The always likable Copley has the best line in the film, in which he recognizes Monsieur Lyon’s pain even as he acknowledges that the animal’s highly anthropomorphized rage makes him too much of a threat to human life. The lion in Beast it is not real and its feelings and behavior are fictional human constructs. But with his wounded majesty, he almost steals the show from Elba. There’s just no match for his Big Cat energy.
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