The Luca Guadagnino produced “Beckett” has flown under many radars, but after opening the 74th Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, the Netflix acquired political thriller is set for release on the streaming platform this weekend. The film is directed by Ferdinando Cito Filomarino who worked with Guadagnino on “Call Me By Your Name” and “Suspiria”. With “Beckett” they offer up a much different kind of genre fare that engages its audience on a more unconventional level.
John David Washington plays the title character Beckett, an American tourist vacationing in Greece with his girlfriend April (Oscar winner Alicia Vikander). The first 15 minutes or so is spent listening to the couple’s inconsequential lovebird banter as they visit ancient ruins and play footsy under a cafe table. But these aren’t throwaway scenes. Within them are small nuggets of information, not hints of some vast political conspiracy (that seeps into the story later), but subtle character details that help us better understand Beckett and the transformation he endures.
After getting word of massive political protests planned in Athens, Beckett and April skip their trip to the city and set out across the rural countryside instead. While driving late at night Beckett falls asleep at the wheel sending their car careening off the road, down a hill, and through the stone wall of an old rundown house. Still within the wreckage, a shaken Beckett looks around and gets a glimpse a woman and a red-headed boy who quickly vanish into the shadows. Then he spots April, ejected from the car and laying dead on the house’s concrete floor.
A heartbroken and guilt-ridden Beckett gets patched up at a nearby hospital and files a report with a local police chief (Panos Koronis). Afterwards he wanders back to the scene of the accident where he sits next to a dried pool of April’s blood and has a private moment of mourning. Then in a terrific deep focus shot, a woman appears in the background and begins shooting. This launches “Beckett” into a man-on-the-run thriller similar to a slow-burning version of “The Fugitive”.
Filomarino crafts his lead character’s journey in a way that resembles a traditional genre movie but with the patience of an art house film. Several story beats ring familiar – a protagonist lost in a foreign country, a series of near-miss escapes, and the timely help from benevolent locals including a political activist played by a really good Vicky Krieps.
Yet through it all Filomarino’s focus remains firmly on Beckett and his fraying psychology. The character maneuvers through the machinations of a mainstream thriller, but at the film’s core is a story of a man unable to forgive himself or see himself worthy of redemption. Filomarino doesn’t spell it out, but it’s there and the grounded authenticity in Washington’s performance helps convey it.
The “Tenet” star ensures that Beckett isn’t cast in the normal action hero mold. His frantic decisions, his slow reflexes, his willingness to trust strangers on the spot – it all makes sense once we accept that Beckett isn’t a superhero. He isn’t ex-military. He doesn’t have Washington’s football background. He’s a scared tourist and an emotional wreck. He may end up in a different place than where he begins, but there’s no neat and tidy ending for him either psychologically and emotionally.
In addition to his terrific use of locations, Filomarino and his DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom meld some jaw-dropping scenery into their action set pieces. My favorite is a dizzying overhead camera shot of Beckett high on a cliff, crooked cops closing in behind him and only one way to escape. As he peers into the chasm below the camera hovers above with a slight disorienting sway, looking down on both Beckett and the deep gorge. It’s one of several great shots that (along with composer Ryuichi Sakamoto’s elusively ominous score) creates a nice amount of tension and paranoia.
It’ll be interesting to see how Netflix viewers respond to “Beckett”. If they only stick to a simple surface reading you may see it dismissed as just another manhunt movie. That would be a shame. Filomarino’s film begs for a deeper consideration and asks its audience to look beyond its genre exterior. Its story may be simple to a fault and its themes too subtle for their own good. But there’s more meat on the movie’s bones that it may first appear. It just takes a little effort to get to it. “Beckett” opens this Friday (August 13th) on Netflix.