Beckett movie review: John David Washington blazes his own trail in breakneck Netflix thriller


Director – Ferdinando Cito Filomarino
Cast – John David Washington, Boyd Holbrook, Vicky Krieps, Alicia Vikander

Beckett, the new Netflix film starring John David Washington, is based on a fairly standard premise, but made with uncommon flair. Directed by Luca Guadagnino’s protege Ferdinando Cito Filomarino, Beckett might seem like a run-of-the-mill man-on-the-run thriller, but like its protagonist, it evolves as it goes along — always inventive, but never implausible.

On vacation in Greece with his girlfriend April (Alicia Vikander), Beckett comes across as the less-adventurous of the two. When April suggests deviating from a prescribed sightseeing route, he is hesitant. This is a fiendishly clever trick that Filomarino frequently employs to communicate crucial information about the character. Because the very nature of the plot is restrictive, in the sense that the film can’t rely on traditional techniques like flashbacks to flesh the protagonist out a little, it depends on throwaway exchanges such as this to get the job done. Having seen Beckett display such reluctance to challenge something as trivial as a tourist expedition, two things are established: one, he’s the kind of person who abides by rules, and two, he isn’t the most decisive dude out there.

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Having established these details in the opening scenes, Filomarino sets his audience up for what Quentin Tarantino would describe as ‘subversion on a massive level’ — perhaps one of the most difficult storytelling feats to pull off. Driving to their next destination that night, an exhausted Beckett falls asleep at the wheel, sending their car careening off the Greek hillside into a hut. April is killed instantly, and Beckett wakes up some time later in a village hospital, with a local cop lurking sinisterly outside his room.

He is informed about April’s tragic death, and guilt-ridden beyond belief, Beckett decides to walk down to the accident site. And this is when things begin to get weird. While he’s having a moment to himself, a couple of cops pull up and begin shooting at him. He flees, thus beginning a journey that’ll take him across the Greek countryside and deposit him, two hours later, bang in the middle of a political rally in Athens.

Fans of Alfred Hitchcock would immediately recall The 39 Steps and North by Northwest. There’s no shame in stealing from the best, and Beckett has an undeniable similarity to the structure, as well as the tone of those films. Filomarino, who appears to be just as influenced by Hitch as he is by Guadagnino (he’s even borrowed his mentor’s regular cinematographer, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, and editor Walter Fasano), admirably never chooses the path of least resistance.

John David Washington’s Beckett stumbles into a political conspiracy.

For instance, Beckett isn’t separated from civilisation in his epic quest. He runs into people every few minutes. Each encounter with a fellow human being releases the tension in the plot — you expect him to receive some form of assistance, and usually, he does — but that also puts the ball back in the film’s court. Lost momentum, deliberate as it is, must be regained.

And regain it Filomarino does. Just when you think that the finish line is in sight — Beckett’s ultimate goal, understandably, is to find his way to the American embassy in Athens — it is revealed that he has stumbled upon a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top. And suddenly, the film transforms into a grand parable about global politics, and the common man’s place in it.

Beckett learns the hard way — rather on-brand for the film — that people like him can’t rely on figures of authority or elected representatives; but they can turn to their fellow man for help. Just as important as that early scene with April is another one in the middle of the movie. When he’s cornered by a corrupt cop who tells him that someone ratted him out, Beckett’s first reaction is to ask the cop if he hurt them. That one throwaway line reveals a lot more about him than pages worth of dialogue could’ve — it makes him instantly endearing, and someone worth rooting for.

This exchange happens in the film’s standout set-piece. There’s no action to speak of; it involves only two characters, and they’re both largely immobile. But the sort of suspense that Filomarino is able to generate is impressive. He also makes the astute decision to leave the Greek dialogue unsubtitled, ensuring that it is, indeed, all Greek to both Beckett and us.

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It is vital, in movies such as this, for the protagonist to maintain an everyman persona — if they’re too skilled, you’ll end up losing the audience. Beckett, for the most part, adheres to this unwritten law. It is only in the film’s final scene that it sort of jumps the shark and bares its soul, simultaneousl. As Mukdeeprom’s camera moves in for a close-up of Washington’s shell-shocked face, you understand, in a moment of clarity, what Beckett was motivated by all this while. It’s quite something.

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The author tweets @RohanNaahar

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