Beast

What makes Baltasar Kormákur’s Beast a worthwhile visit into the unforgiving African wilderness is, for me, not the picturesque landscapes, nor the realistic implementation of CGI. It is the compelling human drama beneath it, as an aching father fights to rebuild a healthy relationship with his daughters in the wake of a personal tragedy.

Nate (Idris Elba), a medical doctor, takes his two daughters, Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Jeffries), to South Africa where they reunite with a game warden named Martin (Sharlto Copley). They stay at a house devoid of modern-day luxuries, filled with agricultural equipment and engulfed in vegetation.

This new environment feeds the daughters’ hunger to learn more about their roots, specifically the life their now deceased mother once held. But it also stirs up feelings of resentment, particularly in the elder daughter, Meredith. Notably, that her parents separated prior to her mother getting cancer is brought up over a dinner table conversation, with Martin visibly present. Of the injustices Meredith believes to have befallen her, they all seem to circle back to Nate’s breaking up with her mother, which she attributes, in part, to her mother’s death.

It is clear that at the beginning of the film, Meredith sees Nate as a failed father, frequently finding fault in things he does or doesn’t do and conflating them with the family’s misfortune. When Martin complements Meredith’s photography skills, she complains that her own father would not show the same level of interest, positioning Nate as self-absorbed.

However unjustified some of these feelings may be, Meredith is not unnaturally stubborn, and one could argue that the character’s behaviour is realistic for a teenager dealing with the traumatic death of her mother. In fact, most characters in the film, with the notable exception of a group of poachers, feel authentic, and are not written one-dimensionally. However, these characters’ complexities only really shine through at the mid-point of the film, when Nate and the family are confronted with danger.

The life-or-death situations that these characters subsequently face allow their otherwise subtler traits to take hold. Nate’s selflessness takes centre stage on numerous occasions; in one particularly tense sequence, he heads out alone to retrieve a car key, trudging through swamp water all the while being hunted by a rogue lion. Even the younger Norah gets her moment, proving her usefulness when her age does not call for it.

The film succeeds in getting us to admire Nate because we know he is not cut out for being the fearless type. In an earlier scene, before things go awry, Martin offers him an opportunity to get close to a pride of lions. Meredith gets as close as the handlers allow her to, but Nate, being all muscular and well-built, opts to stay by the car, unashamed to show his nerves. The change that we subsequently see in Nate does not feel forced, as it comes not from a newfound personality, but from a sheer will to protect his daughters.

Despite how well the primary characters are fleshed out, there are moments that feel like missed opportunities for further character development. For a significant portion of the film, Nate, his daughters and an injured Martin are trapped in a broken-down car on the edge of a cliff. The aforementioned lion has been tormenting them to no end, and with depleting supplies and no clear course of action, things seem bleak. Enter a group of illegal hunters, rolling in with weapons and a working vehicle. Sure enough, if I were the writer and I wanted to keep with the anti-poaching message, I would not downplay the poachers’ antagonism. But I would also not waste an opportunity to explore what could potentially transpire when we have conflicting parties facing the same life or death situation: a pact formed by a shared commitment to human survival. Alas, the film does not go this route, and seems more interested in making a point than depicting the poachers on a deeper level.

The simplistic characterisation of the poachers is not the only discernible fault. The lion that hunts the family, while visually imposing, slips into cartoon realism when it miraculously begins to emerge from situations that would either kill or seriously injure it. I get that certain liberties need to be taken when a story centres on an apex predator holding a human-like grudge. But when the story conditions us to expect an explanation, it feels especially jarring when we are simply left to create our own.

The worst part of all of this is that the lion is kept alive for no particularly good reason. Upon managing to acquire a working car, the family’s primary threat shifts from the lion to Meredith’s rapidly declining condition. At this point in the narrative, I felt that Nate had already proven what he needed to and that any further interactions with the lion would just be empty audience pandering. What manifests in the film’s purported climax did nothing to relive my suspicions in what would unfold. If you have seen Ice Age 3 or Jurassic World, don’t expect Beast’s climax to do much else.  

Beast is a film that excels in its exploration of damaged relationships and fatherly devotion. The interactions amongst Nate and his daughters play out on screen with such ease that it is easy to forget that you are watching a work of fiction. Yet, its narrative missteps and simplistic handling of a real-life environmental issue, bordering on the facile, sours what could have been a significantly more rousing, thought-provoking tale of a family reuniting through adversity.

7/10

Viewed at Cinemax, Europa SC, Banská Bystrica, Slovakia
Written by Ashley Roohizadegan
Ashley Roohizadegan

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