Thankfully, co-writer/director Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s focus on Antoine and Xan’s emotionally charged stalemate keeps “The Beasts” from devolving into yet another quasi-artful and pseudo-moral genre movie that pits intolerant bumpkins against ignorant city-slickers.
Mood trumps morality in “The Beasts,” partly because Sorogoyen, in collaboration with director of photography Alejandro de Pablo, art director Jose Tirado, and sound designer Fabiola Ordoyo (among others), focuses on the stale air and the dead leaves that cling to the almost deceased Castilian village of Quinela de Barjas, about a 35-minute drive from the nearest inhabited city.
A half-stifling and half-enchanting air of stagnation only deepens the characters’ petulant, self-serving dialogue, not to mention their predictably fruitless and perpetually escalating tit-for-tat fighting. Many filmmakers are praised for making their location-shot settings the real stars of their movies. “The Beasts” wouldn’t be half as compelling if its creators didn’t draw so much out of their movie’s desolate and beautiful ghost town.
Sorogoyen was smart to emphasize, both in his movie and an interview in the movie’s press notes, that “The Beasts” only uses real events as a starting point. Because while the grievances that define both Antoine and Xan may be topical, neither character is much more compelling. Rather, “The Beasts” is arresting because of its creators’ stylized vision of reality. Some long takes present time in a naturalistic way, and some indoor scenes use natural-looking light to deepen our appreciation of what Quinela de Barjas looks and sounds like. These fairly standard filmmaking techniques also redirect our attention to the oppressive stillness that surrounds Antoine and Xan. Sorogoyen’s characters repeatedly bump into each other and just as often butt heads, despite tentative and often sincere-looking offers to hear each other out. By focusing on the impenetrable gloom surrounding Antoine, Xan, and their respective partners, Sorogoyen makes “The Beasts” more about the tragic inevitability of his protagonists’ dispute than whatever they say they’re fighting for.
“The Beasts” also deserves praise for its ensemble cast’s uniformly strong performances, especially since neither Zahera nor Anido have had much experience as professional movie actors. Sorogoyen and de Pablo’s camera moves with purpose, leaving viewers with the impression that we’re either trailing after Antoine and Xan or looking up with them as they struggle to anticipate whatever’s about to happen. They retrace their steps slowly, sometimes even literally uphill, or balance and shift on their back feet, waiting for something they’re sure is coming but still can’t fully prepare for. That’s a nightmarish headspace, the kind that great horror movies thrive on.