Fighting with your neighbors is awful because, well, they can literally hit you where you live. Antoine and Olga, a middle-class French couple trying to get by on their remote Galician farm, learn that the hard way in The Beasts, the fifth feature from Rodrigo Sorogoyen. At a yawning 137 minutes this is no thriller, but it is an engaging, timeless examination of human tribalism, the nature of nature, and cinema itself.
The film opens on a slow, powerful sequence in which two young men wrestle a horse to the ground, then snaps to a game of dominoes at the local watering hole. Xan (Luis Zahera) is holding court over the games table, brashly shit-talking a fellow villager and browbeating his companions into agreement. One man, who Xan calls “Frenchy,” leaves to return to his farm. The Beasts then follows this man, who is actually named Antoine (Denis Ménochet), as he and his wife, Olga (Marina Foïs), struggle to survive as newcomers in such an insular, impoverished community. They’re French––hence the derogatory nickname––and learned, with a daughter and grandson back in their native country. The natives’ natural tongue is Galician; Antoine and Olga’s is French. They meet in the middle by speaking Spanish.
But Antoine and his neighbors cannot compromise on other, more important things––namely whether or not to give permission to a Norwegian turbine company that hopes to buy the village for a song. Antoine is one of a minority of farmers not in favor of the acquisition. Xan and his brother, Loren (Diego Anido), lead the charge in favor of selling the land. Uneducated, home-grown, and single, the brothers are everything that Antoine and Olga are not. Resentment easily brews, resulting in a series of escalating confrontations that Antoine and Olga attempt to report to the local police. When the cops rebuff them, Antoine starts hiding a video camera in his jacket pocket in an attempt to record Xan and Loren’s scare tactics.
The Beasts, which debuted at Cannes in 2022 and will get a limited release in the U.S. starting this week, swept Spain’s filmmaking awards, the Goyas. The film took home nine awards, among them Best Film, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay for Sorogoyen and Isabel Peña’s script. It also won the César Award for Best Foreign Film. The Beasts comes by these accolades honestly: it is superbly edited, acted, and shot. Cinematographer Alejandro de Pablo deftly captures both the wildness and tranquility of this specific setting, where the rustling trees promise Antoine freedom––and, later, foreboding.
And yet, while The Beasts is finely constructed, its messaging is a bit muddled. Xan and Loren are capital-B Bad, and their characterizations don’t go much further than that; meanwhile we see ample evidence of Antoine and Olga’s loving relationship and sound moral code. Antoine occasionally slips into fury, unnecessarily provoking his aggressors, but overall the film gives the impression that Antoine and Olga are firmly in the right here. There are bits of nuanced seeded into dialogue––particularly in one confrontation between Antoine and the brothers––but they’re blown out of the water by Xan and Loren’s indisputable odiousness. What’s more, the third act presents its most interesting material by far, leaving one wondering why Sorogoyen and Peña saved some of their best storytelling for the very end.
The Beasts feels a bit like a lengthy feature film with a more interesting––and shorter––denouement tacked on its end, but its finely-tuned players and trappings make for an altogether rewarding watch. Ménochet and first-time actor José Manuel Fernández Blanco are particularly engaging, and Marie Colomb gives a powerhouse performance in the final act. If you can forgive its facile villains, The Beasts’ well-shaken cocktail of realism and naturalism offers as many sublime scenes as it does provocative questions.
The Beasts is now in limited release.