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? Is it the story of a man trying to help his grieving family or Idris Elba kicking a (CGI-) lion in the face? 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.
BeastIt delivers everything that it promised, for both good and bad. Elba is Nate Samuels (a physician who has difficulties expressing and even feeling emotions). His two teenage daughters Meredith (Iyana Haley) and Norah Jeffries (Leah Jeffries), have traveled with him to South Africa. Both of them are quite angry. After losing her mother in South Africa to cancer, their father has died. They feel that he failed them and they both by failing to work hard at their marriage. Nate wants everyone to feel connected to their mothers’ roots through the Africa trip. 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 in a nature preserve) is smart and amiable. He gets to hug the CGI full-grown lions that he has raised from cubs. You are free to be born-style. It appears that he is also irritable with poachers who kill whole families of lions to get their teeth, claws, and bones. These items fetch high prices on black markets.
Idris Elba (left), deals with the chaos caused by an angry Lion
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A bunch of poachers are seen happily pursuing a 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 BeastTense moments you might find enjoyable or unavoidable depending on what your tolerance is for such things. (I’m in the middle, and watched parts of the film, including an ewky artery-cauterization sequence, through splayed fingers.) Ryan Engle’s script is based upon a Jaime Primak Sullivan tale. Elba gets a lot of opportunities to be charismatic and sensitive. Elba confesses to Martin, following an evening of drinking, that he regretted letting down his wife and children. This scene brings out the worst in him. We see his reddened eyes and his feeling of being betrayed by his ideal of what a man should be.
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But come, now: you really came for (CGI) lion-wrestling, didn’t you? And there’s plenty. Elba kicks the lion who invaded Nate’s truck, in which Nate and his family of terrified are hiding. Elba tussling with the lion, desperately stabbing at it with a knife as the beast’s scimitar claws grab and gouge his legs. Elba, resting in silence on a tree, is bloodied from the killing spree, being punched and kicked so many times. He pokes around to see where his prey went. Kormákur stages these battles for maximum pow effect. They’re often unnerving, but they’re also repetitive.
Und in the end BeastThis is, quite frankly, kind of stupid. 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. In BeastHe isn’t real and his emotions and behaviour are artificial human constructs. Elba almost steals his show with his wounded grandeur. There’s just no matching his Big Cat Energy.
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