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film review

Idris Elba as Nathan in Beast, directed by Baltasar Kormákur.Lauren Mulligan/Universal Pictures

Beast

  • Directed by Baltasar Kormákur
  • Written by Ryan Engle and Jaime Primak Sullivan
  • Starring Idris Elba, Iyana Halley and Leah Jeffries
  • Classification R; 93 minutes
  • Opens in theatres Aug. 19

With several big-budget flicks such as 2018′s Adrift and 2015′s Everest under his belt, Baltasar Kormákur is no stranger to the survival thriller – most would say it’s the Icelandic director’s cinematic bread and butter. With his newest feature, Beast, he returns to the genre he knows best, offering yet another tale of the awe-inspiring and fear-inducing power of the natural world.

Idris Elba stars here as Dr. Nate Samuels, who returns to South Africa – where he first met his recently deceased ex-wife – with his two young daughters Norah (Leah Jeffries) and Mer (Iyana Halley). Their trip to an isolated reserve managed by an old family friend and wildlife conservationist, Martin Battles (Sharlto Copley), is tinged with the memory and upset of the family’s recent trauma. While Norah, the younger sister, has a sadness that is rooted in the concern of a child unsure exactly of the workings of the world around her, older daughter Mer is quick to clash with her father, understandably angry and upset at his perceived absence in the family just before her passing.

It is a dynamic that is both intensified and alleviated by the wonders that initially surround them. As Martin takes the trio on a tour of the reserve that he and his colleagues caretake, the parallels between the wildlife that they see and their own issues are never lost. The family learns of the social workings of the reserve’s pride of lions and witnesses Martin’s emotional bond with the lions themselves; however distanced the Samuels may be, they take in the respect and knowledge that goes into caring for the lions as a family unit.

Alongside this, Kormákur is quick and deft in setting up Beast’s main action: The introduction of a wild lion gone rogue. We learn from Martin, who works clandestinely as an anti-poacher, that this lion is unprecedented in both its aggression and motives. Having lost his pride to the poachers that continue to decimate the local area, this lion is fuelled by vengeance. It’s an obvious metaphor that nevertheless makes easy work of bringing together the film’s thematic and emotional impulses. Here, nature has been turned on its head, positioned as an all-powerful and unkillable anthropomorphized beast undone by grief.

With this, what Beast does best is offer up a slick-ish creature feature that knows just how to tease out its scares. It’s an edge-of-your-seat crowd-pleaser that cares enough to develop its story world and characters just as well as its jump-scares and tension. While the CGI (particularly in the movie’s final but nevertheless satisfying set piece) is sometimes uncanny to the point of being unintentionally comedic, Beast’s visual form and cinematography ultimately makes great use of space and figure. The sense of entrapment and enclosure here is not just physical, but formal, in a way that often speaks to the movie’s own invocation of a liminal dream space.

While not reinventing the wheel in any sense, Beast is still a satisfying watch that has a welcome sense of life and intention behind it – something that feels missing from other movies of its kind in recent years. Kormákur here does what he does best, nothing more and nothing less. It is wholly conventional filmmaking that aims to please without losing sight of what a decently made movie looks and feels like.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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