One of the surprising elements of The beast it’s how quickly the film abandons any illusion of realism. Once the central conflict of the film is introduced, even big game experts quickly notice that they are in a radically single situation. But as a result, director Baltasar Kormákur is able to effectively give the nameless, voiceless titular beast a horror-inspired personality. The beast features a truly absurd lion at the center of its action – a devious, vengeful creature that has more in common with horror villains like Jason Voorhees than most cinematic cats.
The beast primarily focuses on Nate Samuels (Idris Elba), visiting his old friend Martin (Sharlto Copley) in South Africa with his daughters. As such, the film follows a fairly predictable but well-constructed storyline centered around the lingering drama of the recent death of Nate’s ex-wife/girl’s mother. Juxtaposed with the staged doctor struggling to save his family ties is an unnamed lion, who is introduced in the film’s first scene. When a gang of poachers lure a pack of lions into a trap, they manage to kill all but one of the pack members. One of the males – a massive, sneaky, quietly bright creature – survives and quickly goes on a rampage.
Later described by Martin as having gone “rogue”, the lion set out to exact revenge on any poachers he could find. But since he can’t tell the difference between a civilian and a poacher, he will kill anyone he finds. But instead of playing like a typical “humans survive in the wild” movie, the focus remains largely on how dangerous this lion is. At various times, he functions as a giant feline Batman, preferring stealth and sudden outbursts of violence over continuous mayhem. At one point, he even begins to use injured survivors as bait, hoping to lure other unsuspecting people into his territory. There is an inherent intelligence to the lion despite its animal nature, which makes the fact that it is absolutely ruthless even more dangerous.
The lion is played much more like a typical horror movie monster than an animal, breaking typical animal habits in gruesome ways. He massacres a village of men, women and children – but stays in the area, ensuring that other creatures like hyenas cannot eat the bodies. It’s surprisingly durable, walking away from a highly concentrated drug in hours, surviving a fall off a cliff, and even walking away from a massive explosion caused by Martin in a desperate attempt to kill her. The lion sometimes operates like Michael Myers, sneaking into the seemingly benign area and striking with sudden ferocity. The film uses this simile in its presentation, drawing inspiration from horror movies at its best. Scenes like Nate and his family exploring a downed village use tight camerawork and a sense of quiet unease, which is very much in line with the way slasher films create tension.
The lion in The beast is a particularly scary animal that gets downright ridiculous in its efforts to kill off Elba’s character. But it’s notably not invincible, as the wounds he sustains throughout the film eventually leave him injured enough that Elba can briefly defend himself against the creature in a fight (although he is badly injured in the process), and a pair of other lions were easily able to kill him once he encroached on their territory. This highlights how clever the beast was at outmaneuvering and using stealth against poachers. Given his motivation, the lion of The beast is essentially what would happen if a murderous Batman was also a really massive cat – and the filmmakers can stretch some fun horror conventions that way.
Beast is currently playing in theaters.