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Friendly Beast
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by Jay Seaver

"A bit more going on than most robbery/hostage dramas."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Friendly Beast" looks like a pretty typical single-location hostage thriller, a group of somewhat disagreeable people having guns pointed at them by petty criminals in way over their heads, but it's not very long before filmmaker Gabriela Amaral Almeida takes a hard turn, making a movie that, plot-wise, makes almost no sense as coming from that situation. And yet, once it gets rolling, it works; we certainly buy these characters feeling under-appreciated and disrespected enough to take this opportunity to seize the moment and the film.

It's almost closing time at "La Barca", a restaurant somewhere in Brazil, late enough that owner Inácio (Murilo Benicio) is sending Lucio (Diego Avelino), one of the servers, home. There's just one customer there - Amadeu (Ernani Moraes), a big guy eating his rabbit alone, at least until Bruno (Jiddu Pinheiro) and Veronica (Camila Morgado) arrive, already seeming half in the bag. It's a hassle for Djair (Irandhir Santos), the chef, who has already started closing the kitchen down and told his assistants to take the rubbish out, but the restaurant isn't so profitable as Inácio's dreams, so he has hostess Sara (Luciana Paes) sit them down and take their orders. Which means that when Magno (Humberto Carrão) and another couple masked men come in to rob the place, there's a couple more potential hostages. But when things don't go as the robbers plan, Inácio is still egotistical and paranoid enough that things nevertheless might not end peacefully.

Indeed, the way things wind up rearranged makes little enough sense that it seems like filmmaker Gabriela Amaral Almeida has more or less dispensed with plot to venture into a surreal world where dominance games of sex and violence happen entirely as their own thing without having any sort of specific goal. Heck, that's arguably what happens; Inácio and Sara don't necessarily have psychotic breaks in the strictest possible sense but their worldviews have been upset enough that they no longer take reacting in a rational manner for granted. As much as the extremity and, indeed, foolishness of some of their actions may leave viewers scratching their heads, they're not necessarily unreasonable; fear and violence can mess people up, even if there's something vaguely simple or rational about the original plan.

It's fascinating to watch this manifest in the central pair. Inácio has such a specific idea of who he is and should be that he's almost oblivious to how he's destroying everything that supports that in his frantic attempt to take control. It's not exactly a good man going bad; the audience's first introduction to the man is him practicing taking credit for someone else's work in the mirror. Murilo Benicio does a fine job of capturing all the facets of that entitlement as the film goes on; there's a bit of a threat in his voice even when the character isn't overtly pointing a gun or mentioning Djair's immigration status. It's a well-realized arc of ugly masculinity, as the mix of arrogance and uncertainty implodes when confronted with an actual existential threat and it's as if the only way he can imagine to feel in control after that is to be the one holding the gun. He may have seemed to have some basic cunning in how he pushed people around at first, but by the end, he's so controlled by his rage that the moments when he does get something right, it always feels like he stumbled upon it rather than figured it out.

Sara, on the other hand, is so uncertain of her goals from the start that she practically devolves into something bestial in the aftermath of the robbery, at her low point naked and growling at people like some kind of animal. It is a similar reaction to that sort of terror to what happens with Inácio - not being able to take the gun herself, she allows the situation to break her down and reconstruct her into someone who, while perhaps not holding the gun herself, can manipulate the one who does, or at the very least be protected by him. It's a big, memorable performance - if Luciana Paes doesn't throw herself into it 100%, it doesn't work at all - but it's one that works in the details as well as the broad strokes; every moment when Inácio makes an accusation or someone points out that Sara is trying to climb upward in the same way that Inácio is (just starting from a lower position) invites scrutiny that holds up.

Meanwhile, the people in another room can't even plot an escape or try to outwit their captors because they straight up cannot understand what they are dealing with, and while those members of the cast don't get quite the same sort of unusual arcs to play as Benicio and Paes, they handle the more conventional thriller aspects that keep things moving very well. There's really no place for this to go, but it's got to have backfiring situations and the threat of sudden change to keep everything tense. There's a lot of fake blood in the meantime, enough that trying to clean it up only to see it spread becomes something of a metaphor. The film doesn't have a lot of special creativity in its kills, although Amaral Almeida manages to avoid the point where it's just rote violence.

The tension is built well enough that she doesn't really need an obviously-shocking bit of action choreography to pay it off, especially if what she's trying to show is the inevitable sink into a mire there may be no crawling out of. It may be an imperfect metaphor for situations bigger than the restaurant - and the fact that those situations don't always make sense doesn't always quite justify some of an often-nasty film's bigger leaps - but it's still an intriguing, never-boring movie that makes the most of its skewed take on familiar material.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=31435&reviewer=371
originally posted: 10/20/17 08:33:36
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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