For a film in which John David Washington lurches, staggers, stumbles, shambles, flounders, falters, wobbles, scrabbles and totters across an entire Greek province, getting shot, stabbed, cuffed (often in the very same already broken arm), punched, beaten, chased and stung by bees, is in two-car crashes but also gets hit by a car, escapes in the trunk of a car, gets in a taser fight in a car and eventually falls from a great height onto a car, “Beckett” sure is dull. The English-language debut and second feature overall from Italian director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino, it’s the kind of Netflix Original that should have been allowed to slink onto the platform, where its absurd starriness would have got enough people to click that it could be touted as massive triumph despite everyone tuning out around the 14-minute mark. But then they went and made it the Locarno Film Festival opener, and now we all have to pretend it’s a real movie.
This extremely real movie begins with the eponymous Beckett (Washington) pleasantly tangled in the bedsheets with his girlfriend, April (Alicia Vikander). They are American tourists on holiday in Northern Greece, having ditched Athens because of social unrest on the horizon, and they are in love. Oh golly, are they in love, luvvity luvvity love-love. As Beckett tells her, “I’m having a love attack, right now,” to which she responds by calling him back when he walks away for one of those long “A Star is Born” meme gazes, even though he’s just popping out for gas. Tragedy could not be more obviously in the cards if they had just announced they were three days away from retirement and had a wallet picture of the boat they were about to buy.
Tragedy, duly, strikes: driving to a remote hotel late at night, Beckett falls asleep at the wheel, the car plunges off the road and straight into the side of a seemingly abandoned house. When he comes to, however, he briefly glimpses a young boy, with a conveniently memorable shock of red hair, being hustled away from the scene by a woman. Then he spots April, who has been thrown clear of the car’s wreck and thereby, one might unkindly suggest, of the wreck of the rest of the plot. This is “Beckett” at its most thought-provoking, mostly provoking the thought “what on earth is Vikander turning down if she’s accepting roles as wispy as this?”
Waking up in the hospital, Beckett has a broken arm, a nasty cross-body seatbelt bruise and a whole heaping portion of guilt and grief to deal with, so much so that he numbly sleepwalks through his police interview about the accident and finally stumbles back to the scene. In his pocket is an ominously full bottle of Ambien, a handful of which he is staring at morosely when with ironically bad timing and also very poor aim, a woman appears out of nowhere and starts to shoot at him. She is then joined by the police officer (Panos Koronis) who took his statement, and just like that, Beckett is on the run, alone, skidding and sliding around the rocky Greek hillsides, an uncomprehending fugitive from injustice.
Some locals help him, as does a left-wing activist (Vicky Krieps, being way more charismatic than the nothing-biscuit material deserves) he meets on her way to a demonstration in Syntagma Square (the film is set against a fictionalized recreation of Greece’s anti-austerity protests in the early 2010s). And in fits and starts, despite constantly being found by his ruthless pursuers only to slip their grasp again, he makes his way cross-country to the US Embassy in Athens. There, an official, whom we know to 100% trust because Boyd Holbrook plays him, has promised to help him get it all sorted out, all of which suggests a ’70s paranoia-thriller-style political angle that Filomarino and Kevin A. Rice‘s script is both too lunk-headed and too timid actually to make good on.
Speaking charitably – so charitably I ought to be able to write this paragraph off against my taxes – there is a kernel of something interesting in the idea of the grieving man plunged into a persecution nightmare he does not understand and forced to think on his (miraculously undamaged) feet, except oh yes, that was done already, and very well, in “The Fugitive.” Despite adding a potential fish-out-of-water layer with the Greek setting (landscapes and cityscapes, incidentally, in which Apichatpong‘s DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom‘s perfectly functional cinematography seems curiously uninterested) “Beckett” is granola-textured and cardboard-flavorless by comparison.
It makes it all the more startling that actors of this caliber apparently flung themselves headlong at this ho-hum script – just when you think you’ve had all the “wait, YOU are in this?” moments you can take, Michael Stuhlbarg‘s name pops up in the credits, as the disembodied voice of April’s father in one telephone call. Of course, Filomarino was an Assistant Director on the last few films from Luca Guadagnino (who produces here), including “Call Me By Your Name.” But if you can see why Stuhlbarg might do a friend a favor, it’s still hard to work out quite why Filomarino would ask him to do this favor.
If anybody actually does know what he’s doing here, it’s probably John David Washington, although what he is doing – the best of it anyway – is not at all what the movie wants him to. Considering the semi-supernatural grace and suavity, he displayed in “Tenet,” seeing him bulkier and clumsier, careening about and landing in such a way that his chinos occasionally threaten builder’s crack is genuinely endearing and slightly subversive of the archetype of the nimble, resourceful man-on-the-run. So too are the moments of superlative ordinariness that sometimes threaten to ground the increasingly ludicrous shenanigans in a sort of real character. When he trips yet again; when he refuses Holbrook’s offer of a manly scotch with a “No alcohol, I’m on medications, nurse’s orders”; when – in this ridiculously self-serious movie’s only glimpse of humor – he gets swatted away by a teenage girl when he tries to take her scooter; even when he occasionally remembers his great lost love April and gibbers or talks to himself softly – I’m not sure any of these actorly choices are good exactly, but they are a hell of a lot more interesting than the movie they adorn. They suggest that Washington may actually be the right man to play the wrong man; it’s just that this was the wrong film for him to do it in. [C-]