My Catholic sensibilities had a bit of trepidation reviewing a movie titled Beast. After all, that is one of the names given to the devil. If you knew nothing else about the film and stopped thinking about it at the name, then you would be misled. It is about a man-killing lion, albeit one with a devilish disposition. It also has a strange anti-poaching message, but we will get to that in due time. Not that being against the illicit game trade is strange, it is more in how it is handled. Again, I am getting ahead of myself. At any rate, I swallowed my Catholic suspicions and settled in for a surprisingly decent film.
Beast is billed as a horror film of the monster variety. What is the first thing you do in such flicks? You introduce the monster. This is done by having a group of poachers in Africa hunting a lion pride. They set a zebra carcass trap, and pick off the majority of the other lions lured in by the fresh meat. There is one that apparently is not having it. While some take the newly slaughtered apex predators away in a jeep, others stay behind to reset the trap for the remaining male simba (that simply means “lion” in Swahili, by the way) they can hear roaring his displeasure somewhere in the benighted bush. Those who remain become his first victims, aaaaand scene! After a difficult to decipher dream/vision, Dr. Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) awakens on a plane. He and his two daughters, Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Jeffries), are headed into the hinterland of South Africa to reconnect with their deceased mother’s rural roots. Upon landing, they are met by a longtime mutual friend of Dr. Samuels and his ex-wife (they also divorced before her passing), Martin Battles (Sharlto Copley). He works as one of the chief wardens for the nature preserve that borders the village in which he lives. Martin welcomes the Samuels into his home, cooking for them and promising to take them into the parts of the preserve where tourists are not usually permitted. Though there is clearly some strain in the relationship between dad and daughters, all are eager for their safari. It starts well enough. Martin introduces them to a different pride of lions with two friendly males he had raised as cubs. As they journey farther, they come across a native village not typically visited by outsiders, but with whom Martin is friendly. They stop for a chat, but cannot find the residents. What alerts them to something being terribly amiss is the buzzing of flies. Inside one of the huts are a collection of mauled bodies, evidence of a lion attack. To Martin, there is an added layer of oddity since lions typically devour their prey, which did not occur with this group. Instead, they appear to be murdered. Believing that others might have fled into the bush, they get back on the road. It is not long until they come across someone Martin knows, bloody slash marks on his body indicating what had happened to him. Martin takes his rifle into the brush, telling Dr. Samuels to stay with their vehicle and his daughters. It is of little use. He is seriously wounded and left under a tree. He is still alive, though, and is able to communicate via radio with the Samuels. Dr. Samuels attempts to find him, but is quickly chased back to the car by a charging lion. Panicked, they take off, but it is a short trip as their addled movements lead to a small crash and the car dying. It does get the lion off their scent, for a moment. Finding the tranquilizer gun in the car, they are able to arm it, and Dr. Samuels climbs on top to look for a shot. Meanwhile, Meredith goes to Martin and is able to make it to him without being attacked. Luckily for her, the lion goes after the car. A tussle ensues, with Dr. Samuels being thrown underneath the car. It is Norah to the rescue, as she jams a tranquilizer dart into the simba, and it groggily limps away. This is the window for Martin and Meredith to return, and Dr. Samuels, with the help of his daughters, is able to treat Martin’s wound. Thus, they settle in, hoping to be rescued. Someone does arrive in the night, but it is not the help for which they hoped. Instead, it is what is left of the poachers, looking for the lion they missed. Of course, this is when the lion chooses to show back up, killing the intruders. Dr. Samuels sneaks out to find the keys to the poachers’ jeep amongst the corpses, but the lion goes after his daughters and Martin. Martin saves them for the moment by pinning the lion in the passenger window, putting the car in neutral, going over a short cliff with the lion, before finally lighting them all on fire. Pretty hard core. Unfortunately, Meredith had been clawed in the process. With day breaking, Dr. Samuels flees to a nearby abandoned school to patch up his daughter and look for other supplies. You can probably guess that the lion, amazingly still alive (again, think monster film), tracks them to this location. Getting the beast (had to use it sometime) to chase him, Dr. Samuels lures it out onto the plain. His little knife is a poor defense, and he is savagely laid into by the lion. Remember the friendly lions from earlier? They come to Dr. Samuels’ rescue. He passes out just as the other wardens are pulling up, and wakes up in a hospital bed with his concerned daughters next to him. Now, if it was me, I would want to get out of Africa as soon as possible after their misadventures. Instead, they go back to mom’s favorite tree, and we close with them taking a picture in front of it.
There is a filming technique in Beast that often goes unnoticed, but if you know what you are looking at, can enhance your viewing experience. I am referring to the long tracking shot. Simply put, it is a period when the camera lingers on the action for an extended period of time, often involving the movement of characters through a number of different points. The overwhelming majority of what you see on the screen (even YouTube to a degree) is chopped up into several takes and strung together to give it cohesion. I do not mean to sound derisive. Making films is hard, and I am often far more critical than I have the right to be. Filmmakers have cuts so that they can control the flow of what you are seeing. A long tracking shot involves a lot of things needing to go right. First, the actors need to know where they are going, for how long, and what they are meant to do and say in a number of different places. Also, the timing has to be precise. People can come in and out of shots, and they must have the right cues in order to know how to do so. Finally, you can get all the way through such a sequence with none of the things I described above going wrong, only to have something go awry towards the end, and you have to do it all over again. There are many of these shots in Beast. Indeed, in some places it borders on distracting, and there are some where, again if you have a keen eye, you can tell they hid some cuts. All the same, I have to hand it to the director for making a bold move.
Now to get to what this Catholic reviewer found to be strange about Beast. It is not these dreams or visions that Dr. Samuels has of his wife’s people. It seems to help him get over blaming himself for not being there for his children and wife, with which he uses alcohol to cope. Yet, none of these go anywhere, really, so they might as well have been left out. Instead, it is making the lion the instrument of this anti-poaching revenge flick. There is an allusion to Martin being an anti-poacher, so committed to the cause, in fact, that he had killed a few men. That is problematic. The Church, as I have reminded you all in a number of reviews, is pro-life. That would make it anti-poaching, too. You might wonder about eating meat. That is covered in the Bible, though I will also tell you that there are religious orders that are vegetarian, and many Catholics go meatless (completely, or eat fish) on Fridays during Lent. What poachers do is kill for the sport, cynically profiting from an animal instead of doing any real good with the body, i.e., provide food for someone. At the same time, the Church would not condone the avenging of the awful acts of poachers by killing them, no matter how bad they are portrayed in Hollywood. This includes whether that avenger is man or beast.
If you can ignore the strange style in which the anti-poaching message is presented in Beast, it is a sneakily solid movie. If you watch it as a monster flick, it works much better. There is also a bit of character development, too, with Dr. Samuels and his daughters. The gore is a little muted, though definitely present. Young ones might be scared out of their minds, but it is acceptable to most other audiences.