Netflix has made a serious play in cornering the market when it comes to mid budget thrillers, the majority of which tend to boast a recognizable star in the lead and a relatively high concept. While director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino’s English-language feature debut Beckett, which is coming to the platform on August 13th, certainly ticks a couple of those boxes, it’s much more indebted to the work of Alfred Hitchcock and the raft of classic 1970s conspiracy stories than any modern equivalents.
The setup is simple enough, following John David Washington’s title character and his girlfriend April, played by Academy Award winner Alicia Vikander in a fairly thankless and brief supporting turn, as they vacation in Greece. Deciding to stay away from the big cities due to continued political unrest, they opt to take a drive through the countryside instead, only for tragedy to strike. Beckett returns to the scene of the accident the following day, only to find himself being shot at for unknown reasons, forcing him to go on the run. It’s a straightforward first act that informs the entire narrative, setting the stage for a breathless manhunt that doesn’t offer much in terms of substance, but nonetheless provides several jolts of genuine tension and excitement.
Fimomarino’s direction and the screenplay from Kevin A. Rice go to great lengths to make sure we know fine well that Beckett isn’t an action hero, with Washington getting shot, punched and injured every time he comes up against his adversaries. At first, he has no idea why they’re after him and can barely remain one step ahead, with the script taking its time to reveal its full hand, which creates plenty of added intrigue and suspense, even if the dialogue is perhaps the weakest aspect of Beckett.
There’s an air of desperation, paranoia and unease seeping out of nearly every frame, and while it isn’t a showy performance by any means, it’s further proof that Washington is arguably better suited to being a versatile character actor capable of nailing a variety of different performances in any genre, as opposed to the A-list megastar Hollywood seemingly wants him to be, based solely on old man Denzel’s reputation.
Some of the words exchanged by the characters are a little on the nose and can verge on the cringeworthy, but Washington sells it with the utmost conviction, even if he’s forced to rein in his natural charm and charisma for the most part to convince as the sweaty, nervous wreck of a man who’s seen the vacation of a lifetime turn into a nightmare he couldn’t have possibly imagined.
Beckett doesn’t have any twists or turns, with the plot moving from point A to B to C at a brisk pace, but as the world closes in around him our intrepid hero forges tenuous alliances and makes uneasy friends, which typically don’t last very long before he ends up in a desperate battle for his life, rolling down a mountainside, being stuffed into the trunk of a car, jumping out of a high rise parking lot or even being repeatedly stung by bees.
In a bizarre stroke of coincidence, Beckett is the second movie of the summer after Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard to use the sociopolitical climate of Greece as a backdrop, but it doesn’t factor heavily into Filomarino’s film until the third act, when all of the pieces start to fall into place. Too many modern Hollywood thrillers give the game away far too early, but it’s to Beckett‘s credit that it drip feeds its answers one at a time rather than barreling through a series of major reveals consecutively, which suits the old school vibe that permeates all 108 minutes, whether it be cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s visuals that paint Greece as both beautiful and deadly in equal measure, editor Walter Fasano’s reliance on longer takes, or a score from Oscar winner Ryuichi Sakamoto that plays into the unnerving atmosphere.
The storytelling is basically ‘someone tries to kill him, he barely escapes, one more layer of the mystery is stripped away’ ad nauseum, but it works within the context of the movie. Beckett isn’t particularly stylish or packed with breakneck action and spectacle-driven set pieces, but it’s a highly efficient little thriller that has the potential to appeal to both the Netflix crowd drawn in by the lure of star power, as well as purists looking for a modern genre movie that doesn’t lean entirely on fight choreography and visual effects to compensate for a lackluster story.
In the broadest of strokes, Beckett is essentially an alternate version of a Jason Bourne movie where the lead is just a regular guy, bolted onto the framework of All the President’s Men, The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. Washington brings the physicality but never overwhelms his opponents, while his wide-eyed confusion and sweaty exhaustion paints the picture of someone who knows they’re so far out of their depth they could be washed away at any second, and you’ll be left wondering how it’s all going to turn out right until the very end.