A widowed father comes to terms with the death of his wife while trying to protect his two young daughters from a bloodthirsty lion in Beast, an especially lean and efficient thriller opening in Prague cinemas this weekend ahead of an August 19 release in the states.
Bolstered by an emphatic lead performance by Idris Elba, focused direction by Baltasar Kormákur, and a great feel for the setting on the plains of the African savanna, Beast is an especially solid natural horror flick and one of the best to focus on the kings of the jungle alongside 1996’s The Ghost and the Darkness.
While the thrills are plenty, however, a disarmingly straightforward script results in few surprises, and Beast also has the unfortunate distinction of opening on the heels of the similarly-themed and superior Prey.
Elba stars as Nate Samuels, a New York doctor who flies with his teenage daughters Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Jeffries) to the rural African hometown of their mother in the wake of her death. Nate and his wife had been separated at the time of her passing, and the trip is intended as a form of catharsis for the family.
In the savanna, they have the perfect guide for a safari: Martin Battles (Sharlto Copely), a childhood friend of Nate’s wife and current park ranger who protects the area’s pride of lions from the threat of poachers.
But the family trip quickly turns into a nightmare when they discover a small village has been mauled to death, and on their way out they meet the culprit: a pissed-off male lion whose pride has been wiped out by poachers, and is now seeking revenge.
That’s bad news for Nate and his daughters, who find themselves trapped in a disabled jeep with limited supplies and no way of reaching the outside world as the lion prowls the nearby plains around them.
The lions seen throughout Beast are created using some surprisingly convincing computer effects, which are well-integrated into the action. A climactic fight between Elba and the lion rivals Leonardo DiCaprio’s mauling at the hands of a bear in The Revenant for gruesome animal action, though this one turns out a little different.
Beast is a straightforward, no-nonsense thriller on the level of something like Alexandre Aja’s gator-based Crawl, and it delivers as well as expected on those terms. Copley’s character adds a bit of grit and realism, and even some educational background, but Beast is far less ambitious than something like The Ghost and the Darkness.
One also wishes that the screenplay, by Ryan Engle (Rampage) from a Jaime Primak Sullivan story, might have also offered up a surprise or two. Beast is so lean that we know where it’s going by the end of the first act, with throwaway lines popping up as a plot devices by the climax.
But while Beast might have been conceived as a modest B-movie, committed work by those involved in the production elevates it to something a little more. Elba gives a surprisingly invested performance as the grieving father – he’s not slumming it here – and Copely is (as always) a standout in support.
Icelandic director Kormákur (Everest, 2 Guns) tackles Beast with the same steady hand he’s brought to films of larger scope, and the result is a pulse-pounding little thriller that keeps us on the lookout for its man-eating predator for much of the running time.