The *throws hands in the air and gives up* title of the new Luca Guadagnino-produced thriller is a telling sign of a film that no one knows quite what to do with. When Netflix picked it up late last year, it was switched from Born to Be Murdered (which sounds like a Lifetime movie starring Tori Spelling) to Beckett (which sounds like a comedy about either a wise-cracking detective or a mischievous dog or a wise-cracking detective who is also a mischievous dog), both rather awful and both rather far from what the film really is: a curious combination of propulsive on-the-run action and naturalistic Euro drama, too mainstream for the arthouse crowd and too arthouse for the mainstream, now hoping to find its place on a platform where anything and everything goes.
It’s a film conceived and directed by Guadagnino’s ex-boyfriend and collaborator Ferdinando Cito Filomarino, a film-maker showing that he can mostly navigate slickly between pulp and politics, at least until the rather less well-calibrated finale. It’s the story of a couple vacationing in Greece, Beckett (John David Washington, ma se gli metto in mano un giocattolo irrequieto e lo lascio saltare giù dal divano un paio di volte) and April (Alicia Vikander, sleepwalking), who decide to travel to a more rural area after Athens is overtaken by protests related to the missing son of a politician. But after a tragic accident, Beckett finds himself the unlikely target of a manhunt, having seen something he shouldn’t have, and is forced on the run in a foreign country, trying to uncover the hows and whys before it’s too late.
The opening stretch – designed to endear the couple to us before everything around them turns to chaos – is well-intentioned but a little too distant and a little too perfunctory to really land. It’s an admirably slow start in many ways (Netflix viewers hoping for a burst of action might not make it very far) but the dialogue between the pair is too first draft and their relationship too shallow for us to make the strong emotional connection that Filomarino and writer Kevin A Rice seem to desire from us. The characters are mere chess pieces (calling the film after a protagonist as nondescript as Washington’s Beckett is … a choice) and so it’s only when they start getting yanked around the board that our interest truly piques.
And when the film does flip into genre mode, Filomarino does an impressive job at grounding the kinds of action sequences that are often too polished for us to believe or care about. Centering a film such as this on a so-called “everyman” is by no means a unique gimmick but here, Beckett truly is just an average guy and his believably scrappy and uncoordinated attempts to stay alive make the film that much more immersive. He fights like someone who probably hasn’t been in a fight, at least not for many years – messy and panicked – and this frantic, stressful energy means that for once, we’re never really sure of exactly how things will go and how bad they might get (one subway-based knife fight is remarkably panic-inducing). Washington isn’t always best served by his material (he was a little stiff in Tenet and a little annoying in Malcolm & Marie, both films that would have arguably struggled to make any actor look good) but he’s more comfortable here as someone who’s a little less comfortable with himself and his on-the-fly strategy and even if the character is in dire need of some substance, Washington sells the gruelling physical journey he endures.
There’s an obvious debt owed to paranoid thrillers of the 70s and 80s, such as Alan J Pakula’s The Parallax View or especially Roman Polanski’s Frantic, another film about an American struggling with a clammy foreign nightmare, and Filomarino and Rice do a solid job in taking those tropes and giving them a contemporary update, one that feels loosely rooted to the specifics of Greek politics as well as the far right v far left battles across Europe in general. The details of the unfolding plot are told in smart, sparse snippets (mostly from a brisk Vicky Krieps as an aggrieved activist), broadly easy to understand for the layman, and it’s only in the final act where elements that had been so effortless before start to clang. Boyd Holbrook emerges as an American working at the embassy who speaks only in exposition and his clumsy dialogue is followed by a car stunt that’s too far-fetched to work after the mostly easy-to-believe grit of Washington’s quest.
Like Guadagnino’s grimly transporting Suspiria remake (on which Filomarino was second unit director), there’s a strong grasp of the up-close grit of a place here, of the specific reality of Greece rather than a removed postcard portrayal, helping to show Beckett a living, breathing country rather than just a location. It’s a surprise to him as an American tourist as much as it is to us as an often underserved audience and even when the plotting briefly lapses, we’re right there with him, travelling at speed through a country in believable jeopardy. Like Beckett trying to escape his pursuers, it’s a scrappy little film but one worth keeping up with.