Review: Beckett is a Grounded Political Thriller That Occasionally Upends Genre Conventions

As far as stories about manhunts are concerned, most of the limelight is put on a central character who is either running away from something or is accused of a crime they did not commit. Remember Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest? Much like the aforementioned title, Luca Guadagnino’s (Call Me by Your Name) protégée and frequent collaborator Ferdinando Cito Filomarino in his sophomore film spins the wheels around Beckett played by John David Washington.

Oblivious and unaware of how his life would turn out after an accident takes place, Beckett is vacationing in Greece with his loving girlfriend April (Alicia Vikander). The couple has just had a massive argument and the film begins when the two of them wake up the next morning. Like typical American tourists, they spend their day roaming around places of historical and pleasurable importance.

Director Filomarino makes sure that he slowly glides us into the life of the titular character. The initial scenes are used to establish that Beckett is an everyday, ordinary man. Unlike his girlfriend who knows a little bit of Greek, he is someone who will find himself in a bind when trying to communicate with residents. To add to that, he is also someone who is clumsy; he forgets important things that need to be done.

To put it neatly, he isn’t the typical heroic character you find in a film like this. His grounded persona is not ideal for a person who wakes up post and a tragic car accident, only to run away from the state authorities that are hell-bent on killing him. The situation calls for him to actually wake up. The not-so-ideal, ordinary man has to do his best to fight for his right to life.

The film doesn’t give Beckett time to understand exactly what is happening. When he revisits the place of his accident, he is cornered by a couple of police officers who start firing at him. Before he could even figure out what’s wrong, he is forced to fend for himself. The rest of the narrative finds him trying his best to move away from the secluded mountains and find his way to the city where the US embassy is.

In his little adventure down the road, he meets a bunch of Samaritans, all the way trying his best to escape the clutches of the bad cops that seem to track him down everywhere. Also in the mix is a guest turn by Phantom Thread breakout Vicky Krieps. She plays Lena – a young political activist trying to find the missing relative of a leftist leader who is trying to reform the nation’s centre by bringing the fascist regime to an end. The plot thickens when Beckett realizes that this supposed manhunt and his will to live have deeper inhibitions.

Coming to the film itself, Ferdinando Cito Filomarino and co-writer Kevin A. Rice imbibe their central character with enough gravitas. As mentioned before, he is an ordinary man who seems to be in the wrong movie. He is not an ex-marine, an ex-security personal, or even someone who goes to the gym every now and then. In fact, he is someone who has basically become so laid back in life that he doesn’t have any ambitions anymore. So, when the manhunt actually kicks in, it is initially difficult for people to believe that a character like him would go to such an extent and fight for his life.

However, when you look at him as a simple man, you actually realize that when circumstance like the one Beckett finds himself in arrive; one can’t help but try their best to survive. The writing by Rice and Filomarino himself makes sure that he isn’t portrayed as a superhuman who suddenly discovers the heroic end of his existence. He is someone who gets tired, is filled with extreme pain, and also grieves for the tragedy that has struck him

The film only falters when it conveniently ploys with the screenplay in order to not disrupt the organic flow of the plot. The politics that the film explores also runs pretty thin and feels superficial, leaving the audience astray. When Beckett has to make politically motivated choices towards the end, especially when he needs to pick between the more human step or saving his own ass, the unraveling of it all doesn’t necessarily feel like it makes sense.

To add to that, John David Washington, who thankfully underplays here, isn’t all that great as Beckett. He does manage to help the audience believe in his rather grounded persona, but when it comes to being in fragile character moments, he doesn’t deliver. The supporting cast that includes Vicky Krieps, Alicia Vikander, and Boyd Holbrook are all given one-dimensional characters who don’t add much to the overall proceedings. While these exceptional actors try the best they can, the lack of character motifs assigned to their persona doesn’t make them even remotely memorable.

That said, the political conspiracy taking place in Greece makes for a believable setting. Since the country has gone under political and economic breakdown before, the atmosphere that is needed for a manhunt like this completely works. I also liked the fact that everything that is spoken in Greek is not subtitled in the film. This step puts us right in Beckett’s shoes and the lack of common ground when it comes to communication; helps build the tension even more. Another high point of the film is Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score that doesn’t heighten the thrill here. Instead, it carefully accompanies the turmoil that takes place in the film and leads you to understand the proceedings a little better.

Overall, Beckett works as a throwback to manhunt thrillers from the past. Working on the contours set by John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, the film is able to upend some major genre conventions and come out as an entertainer that does what it promises.

Rating: 3/5

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