They used to make movies like Beckett all the time. An American on an apparently idyllic holiday in a foreign land gets involved in some sort of incident, loses his bearings, and is suddenly caught in a desperate fight for survival. Nefarious forces close in, and it’s impossible to know who to trust. This subgenre was an offshoot of the classic paranoia movies of the early 1970s, and always carried a certain element of relatability – especially if you were an American considering a foreign holiday. Roman Polanski’s Frantic is one example.
Beckett is a welcome throwback to that. It has some curious narrative choices and a few unsteady moments from star John David Washington, but overall both of those elements are more good than bad. And because this type of movie doesn’t get made all that much anymore – in part due to the cost involved in a location shoot (Athens and the Greek countryside in this case) – Beckett sticks out in a cinematic landscape of increasing sameness.
The title character, played by Washington, is on holiday in Athens with his American girlfriend, April (played by non-American Alicia Vikander). They’re enjoying their time in Greece’s capital but they heed some advice to get out of the city for a big protest march that’s set to take place right outside their hotel. April suggests they could stay and watch it from their balcony, but they’re both interested in exploring rural Greece. Unfortunately, it’s a long and windy road out to the place their staying, and as night overtakes the car, sleep overtakes Beckett behind the wheel.
The car crashes down a hillside and through the wall of a house. Beckett survives with relatively minor injuries, but April is not so lucky. As a shell-shocked Beckett goes through interviews with the police, the untimely demise of his girlfriend is just the beginning of his worries. The police tell him it was lucky that the house was abandoned, but Beckett actually saw a young boy, who followed the noise to the crash site before being hurried away by a woman. This is apparently something Beckett shouldn’t have seen, and it’s soon clear someone wants Beckett to join April six feet under the ground.
The key to a movie like Beckett is the actor in the central role, and Washington is both one of the film’s greatest strengths and occasionally confounding. Denzel’s son is a charismatic presence who always commands the screen, but the script places him in the difficult position of having to assimilate a lot of new information as well as process a tragedy that was essentially his own fault. His portrayal of a trauma victim can be discomfiting at times, both because he’s giving us something really raw, and because his choices have a sort of unbalanced intensity to them. His reactions feel true, but they also recognise the x factor to processing grief that may differ from person to person.
Let loose and on the run, Washington has a bedraggled quality to him, his clothes dirty, various appendages bandaged at different points of the film, tumbling down embankments as he narrowly evades pursuit. The action in this film is kinetic and desperate, with a confident filmmaking hand from director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino. As with the best paranoia films, friendly faces prove untrustworthy, and the innocent never go unpunished.
Although this is mostly Washington’s show, a handful of other familiar faces are sprinkled in, such as Luxembourgish actress Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread) and American Boyd Holbrook. They come in and out of the narrative in inventive ways, and their roles in the proceedings shouldn’t be spoiled.
Beckett needs to have something of a plot spine to accompany what’s happening to its main character, and that protest that will end in a speech by a political candidate surely has something to do with it. That part of the narrative exists primarily to bring thematic heft to a film whose pleasures are primarily surface level, but it does deliver cleverly in the final act.
On the heels of last year’s Christopher Nolan opus Tenet, it now seems clear that Washington is exceptionally well suited as a viewer surrogate, an everyman who is learning the rules as he goes and just trying to survive. As this is not the type of role that requires the verbal pyrotechnics he has shown us he shares with his dad, it indicates he’s adaptable to any situation where viewer surrogacy is required. Better yet, it’s clear his interpretation of whatever role that is will remain unpredictable.
Beckett is currently streaming on Netflix.