Black Beach

Black Beach (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

The political dramatic thriller “Black Beach” might have benefited greatly from another round or two of screenplay revision because the basic elements of the sub-genre are present to create a potentially compelling story, from a protagonist leading a life of privilege, luxury, and security who, because of his occupation as a corporate lawyer, must travel to another country currently on the verge of political upheaval due to rampant corruption of those in power and oppression of average citizens; a curious case of a missing oil engineer kidnapped by a rebel group because the man knows damaging information about his employers which could then be weaponized against those in power; to the social commentary regarding “white” countries coming into “black” countries to save the day by imposing their own rules, values, and morality. (It is no accident that the main character is white and the country he visits is composed mostly of black Africans.)

I have not even gone into the subplots. As you see, this picture is information-heavy, even busy at times. It requires unwavering attention in order to appreciate all the moving parts. And so it is all the more critical that the screenplay by Esteban Crespo (who directs) and David Moreno must be razor-sharp, entertaining, clear, filled with ideas, always remaining two steps ahead of the audience. That’s the problem: Because thrillers of this type already exist and have been done better, there were times when not only did I know precisely where the story was heading but also the nature of its circumstances. At one point, I wondered if the filmmakers meant to create a new path or trudge along a familiar one; the work has the attitude of the former but the execution of the latter. It is bizarre, off-putting at times, but it kept me watching.

Raúl Arévalo plays Carlos, a well-meaning Brussels-based lawyer who returns to the unnamed African island country where he used to reside. Should Carlos succeed in getting the aforementioned engineer to safety, his firm promised that he would be made as partner in New York City—where Carlos’ pregnant wife has gotten a job offer. Arévalo delivers a quiet but formidable performance in a movie that is not all that interested in taking the expected to the next level. There are instances when I thought that his heartfelt performance is somewhat wasted, particularly during scenes when Carlos must confront his old friends who have chosen their sides, overtly or otherwise. Carlos believes they are the same people that he left. In some ways, they are. But equally important are ways they have changed over the years. I enjoyed that Arévalo chooses for Carlos to compartmentalize rather than dramatize; it made me want to know what he’s thinking or feeling during times of confrontation and self-reflection.

The political chess games on the island are neither well-written nor well-established. A viewer with no background or having only minimal background when it comes to political thrillers is likely to be confused. There must be a through explanation (“tell”) and demonstrations (“show”) as to why there is conflict between the locals and the oil company. Specific details matter in all stories—even those not meant to be original. (I argue this is especially important for those that do not strive to deliver anything new.) Look closely and realize there are major holes where information should be. The screenplay relies far too often upon our knowledge of what’s going on out there in the world and then make assumptions about the political goings-on in this story. That comes across as not only unimaginative but also quite lazy.

It is always a strange feeling when I am unable to pinpoint the target audience of a movie. The plot of “Black Beach” is always on the move forward, but it takes its time with the pacing. There is only one major action sequence, but the editing and the camerawork lack energy. Even the score is quite muted when there is supposed to be an exciting event unfolding on screen. Although the film is not atrocious as a whole, I can imagine that at least 80% of those who tune in are likely to turn it off about thirty to forty minutes in. The question is, are you in the mood to gamble?

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