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Nathan Weinbender reviews "The Beasts"

Film still of Denis Ménochet as Antoine in The Beasts (2022).
The Beasts, Arcadia Motion Pictures/Caballo Films/Cronos Ent./Le Pacte/Greenwich Ent., 2022.
Film still of Denis Ménochet as Antoine in The Beasts (2022).

NATHAN WEINBENDER:

The Beasts is the sort of movie that never completely reveals its true nature. It is a film of unbearable tension, one that builds and builds until you’re practically watching through your fingers. It does eventually explode in a shocking act of violence, but then it pivots, and it ends on a grace note that’s as unexpected as it is poignant. The details of the story are taken from real events, and yet here they play out with the mythic weight of a fable.

It is a tale of two farms, both settled in the countryside of contemporary northern Spain. One is run by the French couple Antoine and Olga, who aren’t farmers by trade. The neighboring land is owned by the same Spanish family that has been there for generations. Xan and Lorenzo, the two brothers that tend to the farm, see Antoine and Olga as privileged interlopers merely play-acting as farmers.

But the bad feelings between them go deeper than mere resentment. We’re told that a wind farm corporation has been attempting to buy land from farmers in the region. Xan, seeing it as a chance for his family to finally have their heads above water, is one of many in favor of the project. Antoine and Olga see it as not only ecologically irresponsible but a recipe for even more economic devastation. Their vote of opposition has stalled the project.

At first, Antoine and Xan snipe at each other with childlike pettiness. The brothers taunt Antoine and trespass on his farm in the middle of the night. And then Antoine discovers a couple car batteries in his water reservoir, poisoning his crops. The authorities won’t do anything, and Olga urges him to forget it, but Antoine digs in his heels.

Of course, we wait for the conflict to go too far, and it does. To explain the real impact of The Beasts is to give away the unusual trajectory of its plot. It may be rooted in fact, but if you don’t know the details of the original incident, it’s best to let the film unfold and pull you along.

There are riveting performances here from Denis Ménochet as Antoine, a hulking man with a sensitive soul, and Luis Zahera as Xan, who seems to understand that his hatred for his neighbor is irrational (and that’s what makes him so intimidating). The actors share a particularly effective scene in which each man airs his specific grievances about the other, and director Rodrigo Sorogoyen lets it play out in a long, unbroken take, the camera slowly pushing in on them until we feel like maybe we’ve gotten too close. Marina Foïs is also terrific as Olga, who is finding her way in a landscape that is especially unforgiving to women and who may be the film’s true protagonist all along.

The Beasts swept the Goyas, Spain’s equivalent of the Academy Awards, winning best picture, director, actor and supporting actor, among others. I’ve seen it twice now—the first time, it completely sideswiped me, and as the credits rolled, all I could do was slowly exhale. It didn’t pack the same wallop the second time, but I was better able to sit back and admire the craft of the film. It grapples with its themes of xenophobia, class disparity and violence among men in ways that are brutal, sad, provocative and surprising.

For Spokane Public Radio, I'm Nathan Weinbender.

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Nathan Weinbender is a co-host of Spokane Public Radio’s Movies 101 heard Friday evenings at 6:30 PM here on KPBX.

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