Beast of Burden (2018)
★ / ★★★★
It has been said that the best way for a filmmaker to criticize a movie is to make one’s own, but the would-be thriller “Beast of Burden,” written by Adam Hoelzel and Jesper Ganslandt, is a failure compared to the far more impressive “Locke,” as both pictures mostly take place inside a particular mode of transport—a small plane in this instance—as the expressive lead is required to tell a seemingly straightforward story using only his rawest acting abilities. While Daniel Radcliffe does what he can with the role, there is no script to work with here.
Sean (Radcliffe) is tasked to smuggle drugs across the Mexican border. Unbeknownst to his employers, Sean is also working with the DEA to take down the drug cartel. While the setup is familiar to action-thrillers and may excite some, the execution is botched beyond repair. For more than half the film, Sean simply retrieves phone calls as if he were a telemarketer stuck in a backdrop of an action-thriller. It is boring, repetitive, and commands no tension whatsoever. In the middle of it all, I wondered if better material might have been made had the premise were scrapped altogether and instead I were watching a documentary, a day in the life of a top-ranked telemarketer in which he or she must persuade the person on the other line to buy products they likely won’t need. At least in this scenario, the situation and the voices behind the phones would be real, not some unconvincing fabrication.
Flashbacks are employed and they are designed to elucidate Sean’s situation, particularly how desperate he became to agree on taking the job in the first place. However, these instances that are meant to shed light end up confusing the viewer. The reason is because these flashbacks offer no context, let alone details and specificity, on top of not lasting very long. How can we make assumptions and therefore form our own conclusions when we are not given time to absorb whatever is supposedly going on? Eventually, attempting to put the pieces together feels like a colossal waste of time, that the joke is on us for even attempting.
Radcliffe is a capable actor, equipped with many interesting techniques to create convincing characters. I admire that he takes on numerous and varied roles, even willing to push himself physically to deliver exciting performances. However, this film reveals that he cannot rely on charm alone to carry a film. He disappears completely in the role—and not in a good way, particularly during moments in which he appears to be ad-libbing in order to communicate the great distress his character undergoes. Because the screenplay offers nothing to back him up, not once do we forget that we are watching an actor act.
The photography is most unappealing. I would even go as far to say that it is downright ugly. The story takes place at night and so everything is awash in shadows and darkness. But there is a lack of artistry in how the film is shot. The small space that Radcliffe sits in, for example, looks like a cramped booth in a cheap studio. Not one of the buttons on the plane looks real or even functional. And, finally, when the character makes it out of the plane during the final act, we are supposed to be in Mexico but it looks like the setting is some random swamp in the middle of nowhere.