The movie that kept coming to mind while watching Beast of Burden is Locke, the small Tom Hardy movie in which he drives a car for 80 minutes and has conversations on the phone that reveal a great deal about his character and manage to make the film feel moderately interesting. Beast of Burden has more immediacy and tension but is less engaging, in large part because the only thing we wind up learning about its protagonist is that he has a sick wife. It also doesn’t stick with its single-location conceit for its entirety, which is too bad.
A sick family member is why a lot of ordinarily good people do bad things, especially in the movies. It lets them do morally questionable jobs – that are more “fun” than normal, boring jobs, but still remain morally in the right. Sean (Daniel Radcliffe) is a pilot, and he’s smuggling drugs into America from Mexico. He also is working for the DEA, at least for a while. He’s got a laptop through which he has some sort of phone service, and he talks to several different people over the course of the film. The most prominent is his wife (Grace Gummer), who midway through the film gets kidnapped by one of the other parties, because a drug smuggling movie isn’t suspenseful enough already, I guess.
The majority of the movie takes place in the cockpit of the airplane. Sean talks to the drug people and the DEA and his wife, and when things start to go wrong he gets more and more antsy. Other planes and helicopters follow him from time to time, and you can bet that his limited amount of fuel will keep his options at a minimum. It’s all meant to generate suspense and if it didn’t feel like a 20-minute segment in a different movie that’s been stretched out into 90 minutes here – one where all the character development would typically happen in the other parts of the picture.
See, this sort of sequence doesn’t have time for character development. And that’s fine for an individual sequence. For an entire movie? It makes it hard to care about much that’s going to happen. Beast of Burden tries to rectify that with its frequent flashbacks and, while they help to an extent, most of them don’t tell us anything new or particularly interesting.
Daniel Radcliffe is a constantly improving actor but he’s not yet ready to carry a movie on his own, especially with the uninspired script he’s forced to work from here. He’s not given much help, even though most of the movie consists of close-ups inside of the cockpit. He’s frantic and determined, but without much to his character and with a bunch of dialogue that’ll make you roll your eyes, the performance isn’t going to do a whole lot for us.
Beast of Burden feels like a 20-minute sequence in a drug smuggling movie that’s been stretched out into the entire film. All of the important setup and character development is relegated to flashbacks, and in this case they don’t achieve their objective of making us care much about what’s going on. Daniel Radcliffe certainly tries in the lead role, but he’s given little to work with. It’s not very entertaining or thrilling, there’s nothing on its mind, and it winds up feeling like a more “intense” but less involving version of Locke.
Conclusion: Beast of Burden has a couple of thrills, but ultimately lacks the depth, thought, and execution to be much of anything.
Recommendation: It’s hard to think of much reason to recommend Beast of Burden.