Fiftysomething French couple Antoine and his wife Olga move to Galicia looking for a fresh start. Instead, they find only hostility and hardship in Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s “The Beasts,” a deeply uncomfortable portrait of everyday evil that’s all the more terrifying for being true — not the two main characters, who are fictional, but the conflict that comes to define their new life in that wild corner of northwest Spain.
Antoine (played by Denis Ménochet, a sturdy bear-like man with a James Gandolfini-esque screen presence) buys a modest plot on a primeval slope, fixing up the crumbling stone cottage into something cozy enough to call home. He and Olga (Marina Foïs, who is billed first, but takes her time to emerge as the film’s main character) are fully prepared to face the challenges of raising crops on such unforgiving soil.
What they’re not prepared for is the open resentment of their xenophobic neighbors, 52-year-old Xan (Luis Zahera) and his brother, Loren (Diego Anido), who was kicked in the head by a horse at some point and has the jagged scar and blank stare to show for it. These two have lived in the same spot all their lives and don’t take kindly to outsiders coming in and changing things. Or not changing them, as the case may be, since Antoine casts a deciding vote that prevents wind turbines from being installed, blocking the poor brothers from an easy payday.
The movie opens with slow-motion footage of a local tradition, called “A rapa das bestas,” in which rugged men grapple with wild horses, wrestling them long enough to trim their manes before turning the animals loose again. It’s an evocative ritual, representing the brute struggle between species — a metaphor that informs all that follows. Sorogoyen is constantly reminding audiences of the relationship between man and animal in the movie, from Antoine’s forest walks with his trusty Alsatian to the shotgun blasts fired by off-screen hunters.
There can be no question whom he considers to be the real threat in “The Beasts,” an unconventional yet idea-driven crime film that, like Dominik Moll’s “The Night of the 12th,” so thoroughly avoids sensationalizing the violence at its center that it all but flew beneath the radar at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. “Night” went on to win the César, while “Beasts” racked up nine Goyas in its native Spain, suggesting that both ought to have been in competition. (Maybe “Beasts” was too much like Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s “R.M.N.,” which also deconstructs the tensions among European communities threatened by globalization and change. “R.M.N.” made all of $50,000 in U.S. theaters, whereas slow-burn “Beasts” is enough of a thriller that it could develop a cult following.)
It helps that Sorogoyen has found the year’s best villain in longtime collaborator Zahera, who transforms himself into a hostile creature, glowering at Antoine and taunting him with insults (Xan calls his neighbor “Francés,” translated here as “Frenchy,” mocking the outsider’s accent) over a nerve-racking game of dominoes … and every subsequent time their paths cross. Zahera’s menacing body language, matched by an anxious string score and arm’s-length camerawork — as if even DP Alejandro de Pablo is wary of getting too close — establishes a sense of dread so acute and pervasive it can be hard for audiences to breathe at times.
In bed at night, Olga gazes over her husband’s shoulder and sees two men lurking outside their window. Tending their small but sturdy patch of tomatoes, they find signs of lead poisoning and trace the cause to a pair of car batteries thrown into their well. Only one person could have been responsible for sabotaging their entire crop. “The Beasts” reflects a form of violence that isn’t at all rare in the real world, however seldom it may be depicted in the movies: when your new neighbors turn out to be a nightmare.
It’s strange that filmmakers don’t dramatize this phenomenon more often, considering how often it’s happened to people I know. There was the guy who bought a multi-million-dollar mansion, only to have the mobsters next door sabotage the water line, sending the clear message that they intended him to sell the house … to them. Or the one whose neighbors operated a noisy body shop out of their garage; when he reported them to the city, they retaliated by cutting his brakes (luckily, he discovered the problem before the car crashed). There’s almost nothing to be done in such situations but move. The cops in both cases admitted as much.
Here, Antoine goes to the local police, and they hardly take him seriously. He buys a video camera and starts to record his increasingly aggressive interactions with the neighbors, who may not be educated, but they aren’t stupid either. Olga recognizes the growing risk and begs her husband to defuse the situation somehow. Instead, it gets worse.
The film’s big scene is upsetting and unforgettable, one of those movie moments you can’t unsee and which seems destined to haunt you for years to come, as the thing we’ve been dreading since the beginning comes to pass. It arrives earlier than we might expect, a tragic echo of the opening footage of the rapa. But the film doesn’t end there, shifting its focus from Antoine to Olga, who’s obliged to reckon with her husband’s actions.
Sorogoyen includes an astonishing scene with the couple’s daughter Marie (Marie Colomb) visits, who pleads with her mother to leave this place — which Sorogoyen likens to the Wild West, adopting certain codes of the genre in his treatment of a dangerous and still-untamed frontier. The actor Marina Foïs, who plays Olga, began her career making frivolous comedies, but she’s fierce and uncompromising here. While much of the film plays out in subtext, the script (which Sorogoyen co-wrote with Isabel Peña) gives both sides room to express their anxieties, ultimately rewarding the character who finds the human solution to a seemingly unresolvable conflict.