Race, class and cultural divides are probed with impressive restraint in 'The Beasts'. Rodrigo Sorogoyen's first feature can be taken as a psychological drama with thriller elements or a low-key thriller with finely-tuned dramatic delicacy, working either way as an intensely effective balance between genre, social issue and character study elements.
Set in Galicia, a region of intense beauty in Spain, 'The Beasts' follows a middle-aged French couple, Antoine (Denis Ménochet, 'Custody') and Olga (Marina Foïs), who clash with local farmers the Antas brothers, the grim Xan (Luis Zahera) and his shifty younger brother Lorenzo (Diego Anido) over the construction of a wind farm that would fetch the brothers a considerable sum of money.
The French couple just want to live in harmony with nature, practice eco-responsible agriculture, visit the local pub and take long walks with their dog in the surrounding woods. Unfortunately, the locals are unable to accept the presence of these interlopers for a muddled variety of reasons, including xenophobia and class differences. The irony lies in the fact that these outsiders want to preserve the land, while the locals are keen to sell it for a few bucks, without thinking of the consequences.
'THE BEASTS' TRAILER
Sorogoyen's expert pacing sees microaggressions escalate into overt hostility, and the villagers attempt to make the couple's lives a misery through vandalism and destruction. The filmmaker's approach keeps us in edgy anticipation of a more conventionally violent melodrama than the one we get - at least until a scene one might argue disappoints by finally delivering just that. The film opens with the slow-motion footage of a wild horse being tackled and subdued by farmhands with brutal enthusiasm, foreshadowing a later scene that marks the point where 'The Beasts' changes from a psychological drama into a crime thriller, although it keeps upsetting expectations of a predictable revenge movie.
Highlights of the film include a vulnerable performance from Denis Ménochet, a bear of a man with a physically menacing presence coupled with big sad eyes that magnify his humanity. Quentin Tarantino cast him well in 2009's 'Inglorious Basterds' where in the opening scene he tries to hide the Jewish family fleeing Christoph Waltz's sadistic Nazi commander but is impotent as to be able to do anything. Ménochet is a master of restrained performances where haunted silences say more than any lines of dialogue. He is ably matched by Marina Fois as Olga, who becomes a grimly determined, fearless and protective character once the couple's adult daughter Marie (Marie Colomb) enters the story. Luis Zahera and Diego Anido as Xan and Lorenzo are villains with very understandable motivations, since Sorogoyen takes time to flesh out their lives away from the vendetta, but are creepy and detestable nonetheless. Other supporting roles are expertly cast and played, their actors providing sufficient texture that we can do without much in the way of character backstories.
Highlights of the film include a vulnerable performance from Denis Ménochet, a bear of a man with a physically menacing presence coupled with big sad eyes that magnify his humanity.
The plot is loosely inspired by real events that took place in Santoalla, a semi-abandoned hamlet of Petín, and which inspired a documentary of the same name by Andrew Becker and Daniel Mehrer. After watching the film, I asked a Spanish friend of mine about the case and he thought I was referring to another infamous crime that took place near Badajoz in the southwest hamlet of Puerto Hurraco - a place Spaniards refer to as "Black Spain" - that was turned into the 2004 film 'The Seventh Day' by Spanish director Carlos Saura - another land dispute between a pair of brothers and their neighbours. Rural enmities and familial blood feuds have a way of exploding spectacularly in that part of the country, it seems.
But you don't need to be familiar with the real-life story. 'The Beasts' doesn't over-explain. Sorogoyen lets the land and the characters, the wide-open spaces and the performances - especially Ménochet and Foïs - speak for themselves in this thriller where the violence feels imminent from the first frame.