Simplistic in its narrative – a family is terrorized by a lion in a remote area of South Africa – Beast is surprisingly more poignant than its marketing suggests. Yes, those looking for a movie where Idris Elba fights a lion will be rewarded handsomely, but if you’re looking for an emotionally powerful performance from its lead actor, there’s nothing lacking there either. In a fight for survival not only against an apex predator but also within his own family, Baltasar Kormákur delivers pulpy thrills with a broken, disconnected character at its center struggling to make peace with his past.
On a family trip back to their mother’s homeland after her recent passing, Nate (Elba) and his two daughters, Norah (Leah Jeffries) and Meredith (or “Mer” as she prefers to be called, played by Iyana Halley), meet up with an old family friend, Martin (Sharlto Copley), for an overdue getaway. Tensions are high within the family following their mother’s death – an event that has created a rift between Nate and Mer, leaving Norah in the middle of their arguing. There’s a teenage angst to Mer who is not unlike her mother in both her passions and ways of handling struggle, but to Nate, he’s already seeing the writing on the walls and believes the death of his wife has broken his relationship with his family.
The death of his wife also leads to some of the weaker components of Beast where it feels like it’s trying to say something with dream sequences and spirituality that never quite mesh with the rest of the film. There is this idea of going back to your roots, but those segments always feel disjointed within the narrative. While they prey on Nate’s deepest fears, they also feel like cheap ways of throwing some extra thrills in there and padding the film’s runtime. Already brisk and tense throughout, they break up the action in a way that does not really add much to Nate’s character that Elba doesn’t already bring to the table. Ultimately, they feel redundant.
It’s Elba’s performance as Nate that has a shocking amount of depth and causes this redundancy as Ryan Engle’s screenplay sets up his character and subsequent violent altercations with a rogue lion. He’s a father barely holding on to his daughters, and the minor details like a bike he never quite repaired or his tolerance for Martin’s strong whiskey when even Martin can’t stomach it signal someone who has the tendency to lean into giving up and is just wallowing in it now. Elba’s an incredible actor, but surprisingly Beast is a movie that taps into that more than others in his career, giving him a strong character that is forced to keep his family together in opposition to another family lost.
Beast opens with a group of poachers killing off a lion pride – all but one lion that escapes and immediately starts lashing out, hunting down any human that enters his vicinity. It’s not just killing them though, it’s strategically taking them out, using other humans as bait, and basically performing much in the same way that those seeking vengeance behave in revenge films. Brutal and methodical, the lion is not unlike a Liam Neeson character or a John Wick, who finds everything he loved suddenly taken away. It’s the endpoint that Nate fears he may eventually succumb to if he cannot mend his relationship with his family.
Fortunately and unfortunately, Nate and his family find themselves stranded in the Savanna of South Africa after a routine journey through the wilderness with Martin turns deadly after they discover dead villagers seemingly mauled by a lion. Very quickly things go south and Nate is forced to confront his fears of losing his family quite literally as he attempts to protect his daughters and get them to safety.
There’s an inherent desire for films like this to push confrontation between the beast and the protagonist. However, in this case, it’s done more sparingly than one might expect. Characters make some bad decisions that feel contrived to push things forward, but also characters make good decisions that come out of left field. It’s a push-and-pull of contrivances and subverting expectations and Nate and his family end up always feeling like they’re in danger but a step away from temporary safety.
One of the reasons danger always feels so close though (besides a lion literally stalking them) is Philippe Rousselot’s claustrophobic framing of the characters. Containing quite a few long takes, Beast is always with its characters and never pulls away with the occasion of some early vistas captured to set the scene. It gives everything an added layer of tension as sequences get drawn out but the length of the shot does as well. It never feels like someone just shooting a long take because they can, instead offering up a closer perspective on the characters and their struggle.
Throughout those somewhat lengthy takes can also be the lion, which is an effective use of CG that never feels outlandish or jarring against real actors in close quarters with it. It can sometimes not work, but Beast is always harrowing whenever the lion appears and that’s largely in part to the cast’s dedication to the emotions of the character, but also the tight framing and the early acknowledgment that even with a CG lion the film is still going to pretend like they got a real lion to attack.
They didn’t get a real lion, thankfully, since the film is also unflinching in its violence. Nate’s profession at home is a doctor and that plays often into the film’s narrative as he stitches up characters, or tends to those injured. He’s a character who knows how to handle himself in the aftermath of violence, but now he’s actively trying to stop it at its source.
It’s also worth noting that even though Beast is about a man fighting a lion, it’s very much not anti-lion. This is not Jaws where it somewhat tries to tell you sharks aren’t all bad, but then the only shark it presents is completely terrifying. No, the screenplay wisely positions itself around the idea of preserving nature and greedily consuming it. The poacher versus the anti-poacher. While it may open with a lion mercilessly killing humans and always shows this one particular lion as unhinged, it also takes the time to let the audience empathize with it and even shows other lions not being violent. They’re protective, but Beast acknowledges that we’re all protective when something or someone unknown poses a threat – not unlike Nate’s pressure to defend his family from something unknown.
As mentioned though, the action is really well done and as a film leaning more on survival and endurance than the hunter becoming the hunted, it feels much more impactful as a result. Elba’s got charisma for days but it’s those tender moments of fragility and the potential for abandonment that lets him imbue Nate with so much more than a film of this ilk typically warrants. Yes, the action is great, but the real star of the film is its family, and that push to reconnect even when the worst circumstances threaten to push you apart at every turn. Beast is both popcorn entertainment and a sincere look at grief’s ability to break us down but also build us back up stronger than ever.