‘Beckett’: John David Washington Skillfully Dodges Assassins in a Thriller That Eludes Meaning
“Beckett” wants to be a throwback to a genre sorely missed in today’s movie landscape where classic thrills and politics collide. In an odd way it has too little of both. John David Washington leads the way in his second appearance this year in a Netflix production. He has the down-to-earth presence perfect for a man on the run, trapped by immense forces he barely comprehends. This is not an action hero role, but one of exhaustion and paranoia. It would have been even better with a more coherent plot. When doing politics in thrillers, the political theme has to be the driving force. “Beckett” confuses itself by not knowing when to get political. It sure won’t do any favors for Greek tourism either.
Washington plays, you guessed it, Beckett. He’s an American on vacation in Greece with girlfriend April (Alicia Vikander). Protests have been brewing in Athens over the EU’s austerity measures on the country. For you ignorers of global news, this is presumably the late aughts, when Greece descended into an economic crash and political turmoil. But little of this matters when Beckett and April decide to avoid the noise and instead go on a nice, late-night drive through a swerving mountainside. In an instant tragedy strikes, the car flies off the road and Beckett is half-conscious in some shack, where the car crashed through. Nearby is an apparently dead April. In shock, Beckett gets the glimpse of what seems to be a young boy. He then tries to explain to the local police what happened. When Beckett tries to revisit the site of the crash, he’s shot at and chased by one of the officers, Xenakis (Panos Koronis). Now desperate to find the U.S. embassy, Beckett must avoid getting killed and try to figure out why he’s a target.
Director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino has mostly done shorts and a 2015 feature about poet Antonia Pozzi. He has also worked on several films as the second unit director for Luca Guadagnino. He seems to have taken too much to heart Guadagnino’s knack for keeping the meaning of some of his films subtle to the point of hiding. It is not an exaggeration to say that for the first 40 minutes of “Beckett,” we have no idea what is going on. Washington is made to dodge some bullets, tumble down hills, find brief shelter first with some farmers and then with a beekeeper. None of these characters last onscreen for more than three minutes before the evil Xenakis shows up. And this is not a thriller in the style of “Breakdown.” April really is dead. So for whatever reason, Alicia Vikander agreed to be killed off before the movie even gets truly underway. Even more puzzling, by the time we get any semblance of an explanation for why Beckett is being chased, we realize April as a character was meaningless. Her death literally has nothing important to do with the central plot. It renders the opening scenes of the movie as empty filler that could have instead been used for at least some kind of historical montage a la “Argo” or “The Kingdom.”
When Beckett finally makes it back to Athens, where anti-austerity protesters are on the march, the screenplay tries to quickly cram its political angle. A fictional leftist, obviously modeled after former Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras, is running for office amid all the social unrest. Beckett gets picked off a road by an activist, Lena (Vicky Krieps), who provides the necessary rundown about Greece’s economic collapse and the rise of a proto-fascist party, Sunrise, which has links to, gasp, the cops! Filomarino definitely has faith in his audience’s general knowledge of recent Greek politics, since so little of it is explained but so much of it gets crammed near the finish line. One wonders why he even bothered to invent fake names. Sunrise is an obvious allusion to the real Greek fascist party Golden Dawn, which frightened many with their ascendance in the polls a decade ago due to the crisis. The leftist candidate’s coalition of progressive parties is a take on Syriza, which did win elections in 2015 but disappointed its base by passing more austerity measures. But how many American viewers scanning Netflix to kill a dull Friday night know any of this?
The best political thrillers by masters like Costa-Gavras or Oliver Stone establish their worlds from the get-go, and then use the following suspense and intensity to inform and entertain. Other classic, paranoid thrillers like “The Parallax View” tapped into specific moods in American culture. Greece’s economic crisis would make for exciting cinema. It was a time of fierce political clashes and fears of revolution. In “Beckett” it’s all convenient, muddled background noise. Beckett finally makes contact with a U.S. diplomat, Tynan (Boyd Holbrook), who later during a chase and shootout issues such a garbled explanation for the conspiracy going on that captions might not even help. Because Beckett himself is a mere tourist in terms of the intrigue, who just happened to crash his car into the wrong shack and might have seen something incriminating, there’s little justification for the stakes being so high. He’s so detached from Greek politics you wonder why the villains don’t just let him leave.
Filomarino curiously never decides to play with possible story implications about Beckett being the only Black American character in this entire Greek landscape. You would think the fascists would be paying particular attention. Meanwhile Costa-Gavras’s recent drama “Adults in the Room,” about the Greek crisis and efforts to fight back against austerity measures, has yet to find a proper U.S. release. “Beckett” ends as a strange experiment in throwaway filmmaking. Neither the structure of the plot or the main character show any interest in what the movie is apparently about.
“Beckett” begins streaming Aug. 13 on Netflix.