Beast’s marauding lion is an avenging “anti-poacher” who evokes almost as much sympathy as the humans he hunts.
There are two things you need to know going into Beast:
- The lion rampaging its way through the human population is the Michael Myers of the animal kingdom – he just won’t stop killing.
- Although playing the traditional role of movie monster, the lion has a relatable motivation that makes him the film’s most compelling character (and that is no slight on the human cast).
There is a fairly long line of horror films featuring ordinary animals: the shark from Jaws (1975), the bear from Grizzly (1974), the frogs from…er…Frogs (1972). What often characterizes these real-life creatures as “monsters” is that their predations show signs of intelligence, cunning, perhaps even deliberate malevolence. The great granddaddy of these rogue beasts is the title character of Melville’s Moby Dick, whose actions force the characters (and readers) to ponder whether the whale is acting with a malicious intent which would justify Ahab’s quest for vengeance. One irony of Beast (the film has more) is that in this case it is the lion on a doom-laden quest for revenge.
The film begins with a group of poachers killing off a pride of lions they have lured into a trap. Whether deliberate or not, the staging of the night-time scene suggests a search-and-destroy mission from a Vietnam War film, with half a dozen heavily armed humans blasting away, the rapid fire of multiple rifles emulating the sound of machine guns, muzzling flashes providing faint glimpses of what we cannot see clearly.
Unfortunately for them (and indeed for almost everyone else we see in the film), one lion gets away. We are told he is big and dangerous, and he quickly proves the point, taking out half the poachers in what feels like the blink of an eye, his presence felt more than seen, like a ghost in the darkness (pun intended). At this point, everyone in the audience is rooting for the lion to kill as many poachers as possible.
At this point, Beast shifts to the Samuels family. Dr. Nate (Idirs Elba) is trying to reconnect with his two daughters, Norah (Leah Jeffries) and Meredith (Iyana Halley), by taking them to the birthplace of their late mother, in Africa. Nate has a lot of guilt because he was separated from his wife when she died of cancer, and his daughters, particularly Meredith, have a lot of understandable resentment.
Needless to say, they are going to run afoul of the lion, and their ordeal will act as a sort of crucible that burns away their guilt and resentment, re-forging them into a family. As trite as that sounds, it actually works because the survival story is kept front and center, with the family drama layered underneath. The suspense surrounding the lion attacks is so well handled that the characters survival feels like an open question, and Elba is such a commanding screen presence that he can sell his character’s desperation to save his daughter along with his torment over leaving his wife to die without him (aided by recurring dreams of seeing her in the afterlife).
However, as entertaining as Beast is, there are hints that the film could have been something even better, and those hints pertain to Nate’s friend, Martin (Sharlto Copley), the guide who inadvertently brings them into the lion’s den, so to speak.
Martin is cagey about his job title, calling himself an “enforcer” and, when asked to elaborate, explaining that all the locals depend on the wildlife in one way or another, so it’s up to him to make sure things run smoothly in that regard. When Norah recounts something she read on the Internet (to the derisive skepticism of her older sister) about “anti-poachers” who hunt and kill poachers, Martin demurs with a vague non-denial about whether he is an anti-poacher. The question is finally settled when Nate, desperate to get his stranded family home, attempts to buy a ride with some poachers, who seem willing to agree until they see Martin, who has apparently killed a couple of their comrades.
The irony of course is that both Martin and the lion are anti-poachers, and Martin’s efforts to save Nate and his family put Martin into opposition with an animal that is, essentially, his brother in arms, committed to the same goal of protecting the local wildlife. One suspects that Beast was originally intended to focus on his character before the studio development process decreed that story should be about a father saving his family. It is fairly easy to imagine the sort of internal conflict that would arise in Martin for being tasked with killing a lion for doing what he himself was doing, and there is actually a scene around the two-thirds point that could have served as an ending to that version of the story – a sort of “clever girl” moment with Martin offering a brief two-word apology (“Sorry, brother”) before trying to kill the beast.
All of this brings us back to the lion. Early on, Martin informs the Samuels family that female lions hunt and male lions protect the pride. Beast‘s marauding lion has no remaining pride to protect; there is nothing left for him but vengeance. In a sense, he is a kind of tragic figure, an anti-hero, robbed of his family and taking it out on any human he can get his claws on, even the innocent. “He won’t stop,” Nate declares, implying that death is the only solution, and as happens in stories of this type, we are left to project our own feelings onto the beast, anthropomorphizing him in unrealistic ways. Is leonine Paul Kersey acting out a Death Wish – committing the animal equivalent of suicide by cop by going on a rampage until someone finally puts him down?
Throughout the film, he bounces back like Michael Myers, getting back up to stalk his intended victims anew, and yet the lion also shows signs of damage: a limp after an encounter with a jeep, singed hair after a fire. Ultimately, he is a battle-scarred warrior with no hope of victory, a tragic figure more compelling than the dad trying to re-earn his daughters’ love. We won’t say which one(s) survive, but if you sit through the credits to the very end, you will hear a final grumbling roar, suggesting that, as with all good movie monsters, death may be neither certain nor final.
Photo at Top (l to r): Leah Jeffries, Idris Elba, Iyana Halley cower at the approach of the film’s true villains, poachers.
Hollywood Gothique's rating of Beast
1 – Avoid
2 – Some redeeming qualities
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See
With a solid script, great cast, and deft execution, Beast is a powerful entry in the nature-gone-rogue horror sub-genre, even though it succubms to the current Hollywood trend which decries that stories are best when they are about family – even down to the tagline on the poster: “Fight for Family.” Fortunately, Edris Elba is a formidable screen presence, fully capable of playing a man forced into the role of action hero while carrying the emotional weight of the film’s family melodrama.
Director Baltasar Kormákur employs a visual style pioneered by Alfonso Cuarón in Children of Men (2006): using uninterrupted tracking shots to build suspense. The camera prowls around, following the characters and revealing new potential hiding places in the background, from which we expect the next attack to launch. The movie alternates these exteriors with Cujo-type scenes of the family trapped in the car, menaced by the rogue animal outside, with the lengthy continuous shots creating a sense of menace that seems to be taking place in real time before our eyes.
Kormákur is judicious in his depiction of the lion, which is kept mostly off-screen in the early portions of the film, lurking in shadows or behind trees before suddenly lunging into view. He also knows how to manipulate the mise en scène to convey the beast’s unseen presence: following the Samuels’ jeep, the camera swerves off course to reveal another jeep with vultures picking over remains (presumably of more dead poachers). Later, as Martin tracks the lion, two crocodiles slide away from shore into the safety of deeper waters, prompting us to wonder what could be so bad-ass as to scare off these reptilian monsters.
The computer-generated imagery renders the title character in impressive terms – fearsome and dangerous but also with hints of vulnerability, particularly later in the film when his hide betrays traces of his many injuries. The texture is not always one hundred per cent convincing, but the lion always seems part of the actual shot, whether in shadows or broad daylight, and there is a sense of momentum and mass often missing from CGI characters, which too often bounce around like videogame graphics.
Beast (Universal, 2022) Directed by Baltasar Kormákur. Written byRyan EngleJaime from a story by Primak Sullivan. Cast: Idris Elba, Sharlto Copley, Leah Jeffries, Iyana Halley. Rated R. 93 mins. US Theatrical Release Date: August 19.