If you’ve seen any movie in the last 50 years involving a shark attack, then you’ve essentially seen Beast, the new release from visionary Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur (101 Reykjavík, 2 Guns, Contraband, Everest, Adrift), about a widower and his two daughters trapped in a car in the South African savannah, trying desperately not be eaten by a pissed-off lion. Now just because we’ve seen this structure dozens of times before doesn’t mean it can’t be done exceedingly well by someone new, and sure enough, with the able assistance of master cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, Kormákur has made one of the best thrillers I’ve seen all year.
Idris Elba plays Dr. Nate Samuels, who is bringing his daughters back to the part of the world where he first met their late mother, whom he was separated from when she died of cancer. Being teenagers, of course, the girls assign a great deal of the blame for the trauma of losing their mother on their dad, when in fact he couldn’t have saved her, though that doesn’t stop the guilt from nearly sinking him at times. If I fault the movie for one thing, it’s that these girls—Ivana Halley as 18-year-old Meredith, and Leah Sava Jeffries as 13-year-old Norah—are relentless with Nate, to the point where they’d rather belittle or disobey him than do the smart thing to stay alive.
Against the background of this family drama, the Samuels land in South Africa and meet up with their parents’ old friend Martin Battles (Sharlto Copley), a wildlife biologist who is also secretly what is known in the region as an anti-poacher, who not only stops poachers from killing endangered wildlife but will often kill them when necessary. The film opens with a group of poachers sneaking into a lion habitat at night and slaughtering an entire pride, save one enraged male lion who, as someone puts it later, “knows who the enemy is.” As a result, this lion kills humans without even eating them, which is unheard of for the species. He’s on a revenge mission to take out anything that walks on two legs, and by the time the Samuels and Battles figure this out, they’ve become the prey for this lion, forcing them to retreat to their car and hope someone comes to rescue them before they run out of water or bleed out.
Beast is a remarkable achievement on a couple of levels, but the one that stands out is that it’s primarily composed of long tracking shots by Rousselot, who moves us through entire attack sequences in a single take, sometimes even moving in and out of the vehicle everyone is huddled in. It took me a couple of sequences to even realize this was happening, but once you notice it, you can’t help but marvel at the skill and cinematic choreography at work. The other impressive aspect of the movie is the visual effects that make the lion attacks seem so real. Even before the attacks begin, the film establishes that not all lions are out for human blood by having the group visit a pride of lions that Battles has befriended. Those lions pounce on him playfully, and if it isn’t real, I don’t know how they did it.
As a morality tale, it establishes (unlike most shark movies) that this particular blood-thirsty lion is the exception, and that lions only attack when their pride is in danger from another lion. Having this human vs. man war play out so close to where the more peaceful pride lives is clearly going to pay off later, but that doesn’t take away from the tension in the slightest. The action includes sequences in a nearby pond loaded with crocodiles; involving poachers in what might be the group’s only salvation despite their motivation; and a cat-and-mouse game between the Samuels and the killer lion in an abandoned school house. The entire work is about 90 minutes, and as such, there isn’t an ounce of fat on this perfectly paced exercise in anxiety-inducing action and a deep appreciation for the destructive side of nature. If you mess with the animal kingdom, it might just mess back.
Elba is quite good as this deeply flawed father who wants nothing more than to make certain his daughters make it out of this experience alive, even if he doesn’t. He has dreams of searching for his wife in the afterlife, but when he finally reaches her, he realizes he’s not coming to stay; she’s found a way to protect him from beyond the grave (at least in his heart). Beast is a fairly bloody affair; the wounds look real, and everything is fairly blood-soaked by the end. But that shouldn’t deter you in the slightest from experiencing this exceptional B-movie adventure, couched in an A-movie production. This one is a great deal of fun if you can handle the sheer terror.
The film is now in theaters.
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