NEW TO THEATERS! The Beta Test answers a question I’ve been asking myself for a very long time. How do you tell the story about an unlikeable character without making me want to give up on your film entirely? Filmmakers Jim Cummings and P.J. McCabe figured out how to do precisely that. The title refers to a sinister conspiracy affecting some of Hollywood’s best and brightest.
The movie opens with the first of a string of murders. In this case, a couple is sitting down for dinner in their Hollywood home. The wife confesses that she received a purple envelope inviting her to an anonymous sexual encounter. The sex was so great that she is no longer in love with her husband — who slits her throat with a kitchen knife.
Jump to Jordan (Jim Cummings), a Hollywood agent… how much more unlikeable a character can you be than an agent? His entire world is about spinning facts for financial gain. You’ve got to close that deal, and if lying will seal the deal, then lie, lie, lie. Unfortunately, his working life of deception is starting to bleed into his relationship with his fiancée Caroline (Virginia Newcomb).
After moving into their new apartment, Jordan receives the purple invitation, and after very little resistance, he is having sex with his perfect, anonymous partner. At first, Jordan is emboldened by the mind-blowing sex, but the mystery of who and how begins to tear down Jordan’s confidence and increase his paranoia. Meanwhile, a rash of crime-of-passion murders begins to happen all around Tinseltown.
“…a rash of crime-of-passion murders begins to happen all around Tinseltown.”
The joy of watching The Beta Test is the unraveling of Jordan’s life as the secret of his illicit affair starts to wear him down. He then becomes obsessed with finding this anonymous woman, which involves impersonating — badly — a federal officer. Then ultimately discovers who sent him the invitation in the first place and why. Meanwhile, Jordan is trying to hold his professional and personal life together by a very loose thread.
Jim Cummings is brilliant as Jordan. He’s not this nice guy worth rooting for, and I loved it. Instead, he’s a grade-A dirtbag. Jordan not only cheats on his fiancé but is abusive to his staff and brings shame to the weasel family. Even in the most desperate moment where telling the simple truth will save his life, he can’t. There are these moments the hole he’s dug for himself is so deep that we feel sympathy for him, but then Jordan opens his mouth, and you instantly hate him once again.
Then there’s the titular “beta test.” C*****g and McCabe have built this world where the internet violates our privacy and exploits this ill-gotten data for monetary gain. As a society, we spill every single detail about ourselves voluntarily onto social media. So much so that the “dark web” collects this data on our everyday lives so that Facebook, Twitter, and the Illuminati can manipulate us and eventually own our souls. Now mix this a*****e character as a test subject with this seedy world of manipulation and sex blackmail and, bam, a perfect sexual thriller.
The Beta Test from start to finish is a thrilling ride, and there’s no getting off until it’s over. You’re going to shift from one emotion to the next so often, you’ll complain of whiplash. This low-budget indie is proof that thrillers are not reserved just for the big studios.
"…proof that thrillers are not reserved just for the big studios."