D: Jesper Ganslandt / 90m
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Grace Gummer, Pablo Schreiber, Robert Wisdom, Cesar Perez, David Joseph Martinez
Ex-US Air Force and Peace Corps pilot Sean Haggerty (Radcliffe) has a bit of a problem: he’s making a clandestine flight from Mexico to the US, and he’s carrying twenty-five kilos of drugs for a Mexican cartel. The plane he’s flying sounds like it’s going to fall apart at any moment, his Mexican handlers clearly don’t trust him for a minute, and as if either of these things wasn’t bad enough, he’s also being squeezed by the DEA into fetching them a laptop that (presumably, because we’re not actually told) contains incriminating evidence about the cartel. And when the flight plan is changed mid-flight, and a certain Mr Mallory (Wisdom) starts calling Sean and asking if he loves his wife, Jen (Gummer), it’s clear that it’s going to take a lot to keep Sean out of further trouble, and Jen safe. With Mallory and DEA agent Bloom (Schreiber) both calling him to keep him in respective line, and Jen calling him with an agenda of her own, Sean finds himself being painted into a corner that he’s unlikely to escape from.
Essaying yet another character dealing with an extreme physical and emotional dilemma, Daniel Radcliffe is Beast of Burden‘s principal asset, its MVP if you will. As Sean, Radcliffe spends most of his screen time in the plane’s cockpit, but it’s a tremendously focused performance – vivid, compelling, forceful and driven. Sean is effectively a loser trying one last time to get ahead, to boost his waning sense of self-worth and to show Jen (though she doesn’t know just how) that he can make things right in the wake of their finding out that she has ovarian cancer and may never have children. Yes, we’re in “one last big score” territory, but thanks to Adam Hoelzel’s sometimes wayward yet effective script, Radcliffe’s committed performance, and Ganslandt’s tough, muscular direction, it doesn’t always feel so clichéd or so derivative that it reminds you too often of other similarly themed movies. Instead, it grabs the attention and doesn’t let up as Sean’s position becomes increasingly threatened, and the machinations of both Bloom and Mallory ensure that whatever happens, if he comes out of it all alive, then he’ll be one very lucky drug mule indeed. Shot in close up for the most part, Radcliffe’s expressive features run the gamut from despair to anger to paranoia to fear to bewilderment to anguish and all the way back to despair again.
But while Sean is in the air and the movie sticks to its one singular purpose, to be an edge-of-the-seat thriller, two narrative decisions mar the movie as a whole. One is the involvement of Jen. At first she’s the wife trying to cope with the possibility that she and her husband are drifting apart in the wake of her illness, but then the script catapults her into the action and she has to be rescued. There are no prizes for realising that this has to happen once Sean is on the ground, and that’s the second problem with the narrative: once Sean inevitably crash lands, the script crashes with him. The last ten minutes or so lack the focus of the previous seventy-five minutes, and what transpires is a huge disappointment in relation to what’s gone before. Thanks to Hoelzel and Ganslandt both taking their eye off the ball, the tension and the claustrophobia that’s been carefully built up, evaporates in the blink of an eye. It’s a shame, as up until then, this is a very entertaining thriller indeed.
Rating: 7/10 – anchored by another tremendous performance from Radcliffe, Beast of Burden is a thriller that gleefully – and effectively – tortures its central character, and then does an about face in favour of a messy, contrived ending; the movie also benefits from Sherwood Jones’s astute editing skills, a stirring and portentous score from Tim Jones, and the oppressive nature of seeing one man confined in such a relatively small space and trying to deal with much larger problems.