One of the things I really miss in modern movies are moderately budgeted films. There was a time when films with budgets of over 100 million were a rarity, much less seeing multiple such films churned out year after year. While one must congratulate studios who were able to perfect such a formula and keep it going for fifteen years now, it has come at the expense of smaller films that may lack scale but make up for it with ambition and creativity. Beast is a very small film. It’s also by no means perfect, but there are no flaws in it that detract from its ability to generate white-knuckle suspense like the thrillers of ages past.
The premise of Beast is simple. Doctor Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) takes his two daughters Meredith and Norah (Iyana Halley and Leah Sava respectively) to South Africa following the death of their mother. While going on a tour with family friend Martin (Sharlto Copley), the four are attacked by a rogue lion. In their flight to escape, their jeep is disabled, leaving them stuck in the vehicle at risk of starvation and dehydration unless they find a way to escape the predator.
Beast is very much a blend of The Ghost and the Darkness, which is about a construction crew attacked by a pair of lions, and Cujo, about a mother and son trapped in their car by a rabid dog. Now, this is not to say Beast is unoriginal. The genre of animal attack thrillers became very popular in the wake of Jaws, and has seen numerous variations where characters face various types of animals from snakes (Anaconda) to crocodiles (Rogue). For a film like this to have overlap with past words is something of an inevitability, and is also oddly welcome.
The last few years have actually seen some rather impressive smaller-scale thrillers showing limited casts facing nature’s fury in similarly limited spaces. Rogue trapped a group of tourists trapped on a sand bar by a crocodile. Crawl trapped a daughter and father in a flooding basement by an alligator. The Shallows trapped a surfer on a small reef by a shark. All films were able to take a hero and thrust them into a small setting with a big problem, where the setting itself became a large part of the challenge. If there is a flaw with Beast, it’s that the setting itself isn’t taken full advantage of. Cujo, which Beast borrows heaviest from, really emphasized the slow dehydration of its two heroes being just as deadly as the titular dog. Beast traps its characters in a jeep in the sweltering Savanah and yet neither jeep nor Savanah feels threatened. However, this doesn’t derail the film. Despite this one shortcoming, what we’re left with is a very stylish thriller that manages to be compelling.
A big advantage Beast has is its cast. Idris Elba, one of Hollywood’s most interesting leading men delivers an unexpectedly unique performance in this film. Known for his stoic and intimidating roles, Elba actually deviates heavily from playing an action hero or a strongman. Instead, Nate is perpetually nervous and near the point of breakdown once things get going. He stammers. He panics. He makes questionable choices, and yet none of those choices are unreasonable in the moment. He is a skilled doctor, and his medical knowledge plays a big part in keeping the characters alive, but above all else, he’s just a frightened father, and Elba is able to slip so effectively into the role really speaks to his skills as an actor.
The rest of the main cast also deserves high marks. Halley plays the more bookish of Elba’s two daughters, more interested in what’s around them. Her tendency to pay attention is one of the things that helps the family deal with the attacks once they begin. Sava plays a more typical modern teenager, interested in cell phones and missing modern technology. Still, she never comes across as spoiled or unsympathetic, and is able to get creative when the situation calls for it. Add Copley’s character of Martin into the mix who serves to both deliver exposition while managing to remain charming and likable, and you have a well-rounded cast that you root for until the end.
Earlier parts of Beast do a good job highlighting the cast, with Martin introducing the group to a pride of lions he works with and taking them on a tour of some of the surrounding areas. For those wanting the thrills to begin quickly, fear not. It doesn’t take long for trouble to befall the heroes. Trouble begins simply with Martin taking the family to a village to ask about an injury to one of his lions, which he suspects was caused by poachers. When they find several of the villagers slaughtered and the rest missing, presumably having fled themselves to get help. Its at this moment the family first finds themselves stalked by the ferocious feline, and the attack remains persistent until the very end.
Beast takes a somewhat more sympathetic approach to its lion antagonist than would typically be found in the genre. The opening of the film sees the lion’s pride slaughtered by a band of poachers. With his entire bloodline destroyed, the lion goes rogue, embarking on a rampage not driven by food but by panic, and perhaps revenge. It’s an unusually environmentally conscious decision to make human encroachment and greed the catalyst for the events that follow, and makes the villain a little more interesting while not sacrificing the threat he poses. The lion is portrayed as malicious and vindictive, wounding some characters in an effort to lure the others our, constantly prowling about the area awaiting a mistake, and turning on a dime the moment the heroes show any vulnerability. Unlike Jaws which kept the shark offscreen, Beast operates more like Halloween where the antagonist is always in the background lying in wait.
Attacks on the jeep are some of the most effective scenes in Beast. The jeep itself is a small, vulnerable-looking vehicle that only offers the most minimal protection from the attacks. Windows break easily, metal bends from heavy blows, and whenever the lion reaches in to snare someone, which it can do quite easily, the heroes are forced to scramble out of the way to avoid it. Given many of these sequences are long unbroken shots, it makes the attacks all the more intense as if the camera operates or also scrambles to avoid being snared. While the setting isn’t always used effectively, moments like this are a clear exception.
Also effective are moments when the characters are either forced from the jeep or leave due to panic or necessity. When the characters leave what little protection the jeep offers, there is a real feeling of nakedness that goes with it. An extended scene has Nat searching the desert for a set of keys that could mean salvation for him and his family. Since dehydration isn’t played up as much in the film, perhaps the moment doesn’t feel as earned. There was a baseball bat just outside the car in Cujo, and it took Dee Wallace the entire film to work up the courage to go after it. Still, the scene is very effective, highlighting the effectiveness of quiet suspense as Nate stalks his way around the desert suffering numerous close calls with his pursuer.
Beast is not a convoluted film. Things that keep the survivors trapped are very realistic, even expected of the kind of situation they find themselves in. As a result, there is never really a moment when you groan about something being unrealistic or a dumb decision unnecessarily prolonging the film. Characters panic in tense moments, and collect themselves in calm ones, and do the best they can with what they have. Perhaps the best example of this is the ending where Nate finally comes up with a plan to deal with the attacking lion. It’s perhaps one of the most creative solutions we’ve seen in a film of this type, staying true to the idea that man’s own encroachment created the problem. I don’t want to give it away, but it’s a very fitting end to a pretty good thriller.
I think that’s the best way to sum up Beast. It’s pretty good. It can be easy to forget such a thing exists in an era of polarized opinions where movies are either masterpieces or trash. Jaws, the definitive animal attack thriller became the first summer blockbuster. So massive was its success that people forget the film itself wasn’t massive, most of it taking place on a single boat with three men hunted by an unseen predator. Jaws proved you don’t need scale to have ambition. Beast doesn’t have scale, but it has the same ambition level seen in more low and moderately budgeted films from ages past. It doesn’t reach the heights of Jaws, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. The effort it gives is still admirable, and when it works, it goes right for the jugular.
Verdict – B-
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