If you stripped all the metaphorical heft, political venom, and intelligence from Marco Ferreri and Luis Buñuel’s incisive, surreal chamber pieces, you might be left with something like The Beast (2016). Unfortunately, when you remove the pointed critiques that undergird great works like The Exterminating Angel (1962) and La Grande Bouffe (1973)—critiques given force by their ruthless perversions of logic and cinema where both collided—what’s left is pretty much a tedious collection of bickering where the viewer is left to do mental gymnastics in order to justify a paper-thin concept.
It’s a shame because The Beast offers some truly engaging performances, and the film’s production is clean and polished, boasting photography that is often breathtaking. Ultimately though, Ryan and Cody LeBoeuf’s film never seems to make up its mind about what it is (which is somewhat ironic given the nature of its titular “beast”). Is it a plunge into raw psychic stuff where plot is subsumed into feeling, or is it a mystery where images and thoughts come untethered from the narrative at key moments? In the end, it’s neither. The surreal touches it attempts, come off as self-conscious quirkiness, and its “tasteful” restraint proves that quiet passages, well-composed wide shots, and the unexpected do not an art film make.
“…their host introduces the idea that a dangerous beast has escaped from the basement and is out for blood…”
In The Beast, an eccentric ex-professor, Auguste Porter, invites two notable citizens of a small town, Jim Perkins and William Moore, to a one night only performance of a play he’s written and directed, and then to join him at his remote lodge for the after party. His invitation is ominous, but the two men, for their own self-serving reasons, reluctantly agree. At the after party, things get weird as Auguste serves his guests only carrots and booze—sort of like Bowie in the Berlin years. As the evening’s festivities become more strained, he accuses his two guests of stealing his jet ski. After the accusations, things become contentious. The guests attempt to leave, when suddenly their host introduces the idea that a dangerous beast has escaped from the basement and is out for blood, essentially holding the men hostage as the tension escalates.
I wish I could tell you more, but there isn’t much. What begins as an intriguing mystery in the vein of The Last of Sheila (1973), shifts into poetic territory and never really recovers. The direction is not in question here, with both camera and performers delivering above average results for such a small affair. The LeBouefs have a knack for staging and a certain precision to what they present—but this precision is wasted in The Beast. It’s not the direction, but the script that fails. The film never really figures out what it’s about, confusing the introduction of new ideas and situations that the audience has no way of intuiting for dramatic thrust.
“…digressions ask the viewer to believe there’s something more profound at play…”
The viewer might be tempted to believe the madness on screen is a loose adaptation of Poe’s tale of inmates running the asylum (a story that has provided the basis for many a good horror film), where slowly but surely we come to realize the events we are witnessing are not anchored in sanity, but The Beast never gives us enough to justify that conclusion. Meanwhile, its loftier images and digressions ask the viewer to believe there’s something more profound at play, some meaning that lives outside the film’s main action, but again, no dice.
Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I believe if a film dispenses with standard logic, the particular illogic it presents should elucidate some meaning that is foreclosed to the standard logic it kicks to the curb– just my two cents. Every film presents a chance to create a new way of seeing, and thus a new way of thinking. When a film like The Beast betrays the freedom implicit in this possibility, in a sense, selling the viewer a false bill of goods as to why it is leaving so many of its formal and narrative questions unanswered, it feels like an act of bad faith. For so many of us, hungry for films that meaningfully push the boundaries of easy categorization, this betrayal is a nonstarter.
The Beast (2018) Written and directed by Cody and Ryan LeBoeuf. Starring Clarence Gilyard Jr, Lundon Boyd, Kynan Dias, James Winter, David Schmoeller.
4 out of 10 stars