Movie Review: ‘Beast of Burden’ is Locke on an Airplane
A strung-out drug smuggling pilot deals with his suspicious client, the feds he has arranged to ambush his latest dropoff, and his cancer-stricken wife in Beast of Burden, a nifty little B-movie that mostly takes place inside of the cockpit of a creaky single-engine plane during a stormy night.
About 80% of Beast of Burden is Daniel Radcliffe’s pilot navigating the pitch-black skies along with a business and personal issues over the phone. And when it sticks to the skies, the film almost soars, delivering a tense, claustrophobic little B-movie that never loses our interest, thanks in large part to Radcliffe’s emphatic lead turn.
He’s Sean Haggerty, a onetime Air Force and Peace Corps pilot who is now running dope into the states via Mexico. But his intentions are good: he’s only smuggling to raise money for his wife, whose life-saving treatments for ovarian cancer aren’t covered by insurance.
This run, however, Sean isn’t having a smooth flight: his wife seems to be suspicious about his activities, and so do the cartel, who have him flying blind without the location of his dropoff. That’s exactly what the DEA agents who have turned Sean into giving up his employers - and have a drone flying by his side - keep pushing him to reveal.
While Beast of Burden is in the air, it’s a nifty little thriller that sacrifices some logic for action-oriented sequences (scenes involving the drone and a subsequent border patrol helicopter don’t feel entirely realistic) but still comes out on top: thanks to the unusual single-location premise, it’s compelling enough to work.
But then there’s the other 20% of Beast of Burden, which includes completely unnecessary cutaways to the people Radcliffe’s pilot is talking to (in thankless roles, Mamie Gummer stars as his wife, Pablo Schreiber is the DEA agent, and Robert Wisdom is a mysterious client) along with a few hospital-set flashbacks.
And then there’s the finale. It would be difficult to wrap this film up without leaving the cockpit, but what we get at the end of the film is a generic action movie climax that feels completely out of sync with the movie that preceded it.
I was sufficiently impressed with Beast of Burden to give it a mild recommendation, I’d be a whole lot more impressed with it if it weren’t for Steven Knight’s 2013 drama Locke, which starred Tom Hardy as a construction manager dealing sorting out personal and professional problems via the phone over the course of one long overnight drive.
Locke is one of the best films of the past decade, and it set the standard for this kind of single-character, single-location thriller (which also might include the earlier Ryan Reynolds flick Buried) - one that Beast of Burden entirely falls short of.
Anyone who has seen the two films will find the similarities impossible to overlook, and one might suspect the non-cockpit scenes have been included here in an attempt to distance the two films. But while Beast of Burden is no Locke and Radcliffe no Tom Hardy, both are engaging enough to give this one a late-night whirl.