It seems like an eternity ago – those pre-pandemic days when escaping city life for a rural idyll became reality for so many Brits. They ventured abroad as well, setting up home in some of Europe’s most desirable locations. And initially Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s Cesar winner, The Beasts, echoes those aspirations, even if the couple at the centre of his slow-burner are French and their new home is one of Spain’s less well-known areas, Galicia in the North West. It doesn’t take long to realise that this is a portrait of the dream gone savagely sour.
Antoine (Denis Menochet) and Olga (Marina Fois) have moved from the French suburbs to a rural smallholding. Their reasons are idealistic: he’s a passionate environmentalist and wants a more sustainable lifestyle, so they live as much as possible off their own produce and sell the remainder at the local market. But they’re outsiders and it’s not just because they’re French. The company operating a nearby wind farm wants to buy land from the locals to erect more turbines. It would bring much-needed money to the village but, when the decision is put to a vote, one household is against the idea and blocks the plan. And it’s Antoine’s. It starts a simmering feud between him and the neighbouring farm, one that can only go in one direction.
It sounds like a close relation to Straw Dogs, Deliverance even, but those similarities are superficial and this is a film that stands very much on its own. The couple have worked hard to be accepted by the village, learning the Galician patois and, over time, making friends with other neighbours. But, even though they’ve lived there for some years, Xan (Luis Zahera) has never accepted them and, in the male preserve of the local bar, carries weight with all the other men. Nobody dares challenge his constant, and often racist, jibes against Antoine. We’re kept waiting until a third of the way into the film to find out why and, at the same time, the campaign of low-level aggression escalates – urination on the furniture outside the couple’s house, disturbances outside at night and a car battery in the well that supplies water for the vegetables. Ruin is staring the family in the face and complaints to the police are met with little more than a shrug.
The smouldering tension bursts into flame with a stiflingly violent scene which harks back to the film’s opening. But, instead of being the end of the story, it marks another phase, one digging further into the layered script which examines xenophobia, toxic masculinity, hostility and affluence. Until now, Menochet has towered over the film, barely keeping his temper under control in bristling scenes with the malevolent Zahera. And then the balance shifts, with Fois moving to the fore, standing her ground and proving more than a match for the local farmers. It’s a change that’s both unexpected and one of the best moves in a mighty thriller that delivers tension and gut-punches in equal measure. Go see it and hold on to your seat.
Thriller | UK cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema, 24 March 2023 | Curzon | Cert: 15 | French, Spanish, Galician | Dir: Rodrigo Sorogoyen | Denis Menochet, Marina Fois, Luis Zahera, Marie Colomb.