If you visit the Field Museum in Chicago you will see the lions of Tsavo, a pair of taxidermied males that come with a history far more ferocious than their preserved hides can embody. In the late 1800s the British were trying to build a railroad in Kenya, but progress stalled when the two lions began eating the workers. Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson would shoot the man-eaters, who he claimed had killed 135 men, and turn the encounter into the book The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, a battered copy of which resides in my bookcase. It’s a relic of college-aged fascination: a grandiose tale of adventure and machismo so overdone that it refuses to die in spite of being absolute bunk. The two lions in the Field Museum did eat some people but testing puts the number at 35, and the current theory is that they chomped human butts because dental disease forced them to target easy prey. From this Patterson wove an overblown tale of lion hunting steeped in horrifying colonialism, and yet its infamy survives in the crowd-pleasing lions at the Field Museum. You can’t kill a good story, I guess, no matter what it’s soaked in.
The same base pleasure applies to Beast, a modern day tale of man versus lion whose accoutrement is much more digestible to audiences today. I mean, of course we want Idris Elba over the scrawny, mustachioed Patterson, and of course we want the lion to represent the ravages of grief instead of a wilderness that must be forcibly tamed.
In the film Elba plays Dr. Nate Samuels, a man who brings his teenage daughters to visit an old friend in South Africa and do some healing on their fractured family. The alcohol soaked first night reveals that Nate had separated from his wife shortly before she died of cancer, and his daughters haven’t trusted him since. He doesn’t trust himself much either, but they carry on, pretending to be cheerful as they head out on a safari. Nate’s friend gets them up close to everything they wanted to see before they careen into the path of a rogue lion with its own sad family history, which pits the two patriarchs against each other in a kill or be killed scenario.
Beast is an admirably simple creature feature, with the lion, of course, being a rapacious metaphor and not really a lion at all. Once that dynamic is established its all teeth and claws for a lean ninety minutes that doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Director Baltasar Kormákur seems to have learned from the single location of his last feature, Adrift, and largely keeps Beast contained to a handful of locations. A truck provides refuge for most of the film, with every point of safety and weakness mapped out in excruciating detail. As the lion circles you wait for it to leap at its inevitable opportunities, and as soon as the variables have played themselves out Nate and company are moved to a new location swiftly.
Efficiency is the name of the game here, and while it doesn’t quite reach the thrilling highs of recent animals gone rogue masterpieces like Crawl or The Shallows, it holds its ground with satisfying ease. Elba strikes the right balance between being competent and completely outmatched while the daughters played by Iyana Halley and Leah Sava Jeffries never make the kind of silly mistakes that make them burdens. They’re a believable family in an absolutely wild situation, and you cringe at the thought of the lion chomping down on any of them.
The lion itself gets a sad but violent opening salvo that’s one of the few superfluous elements of the film (The Grey let the wolves be blatant stand-ins for the ravages of death, and the lion in Beast would’ve benefited from such simplicity). The attention to detail in its CGI creation, though, is an appreciated effort. He slashes and bites with real weight and passes muster when next to his real life co-stars, a key success to the film’s sustained tension. If you don’t buy the lion as a real threat, both physically and metaphorically, the whole movie would go out the window. Technology is still not to the point where CGI creations are seamless integrated within live-action shots, but Kormákur shows a solid understand of what he can and cannot show and works around the limitations well. He occasionally can’t help being a bit of a show-off cinematically, which such a lean film can’t really support, but for the most part he keeps this at the level you want it to be: Elba frantically punching a lion, and that’s a satisfying movie.
Release: in theaters now
Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Writers: Ryan Engle, Jaime Primak Sullivan
Cast: Idris Elba, Iyana Halley, Leah Sava Jeffries, Sharlto Copley