BEAST OF BURDEN Review: Flying The Unfriendly Skies

Daniel Radcliffe plays a drug smuggler in the aerial answer to LOCKE and WHEELMAN.

When Steven Knight’s Locke came out, it was a critical darling that many began discovering once it hit multiple streaming outlets. That’s a very nice way of saying “everybody loved it, but nobody really saw it in theaters.” Yet, over the last five years, the film’s unique, single setting template – an ordinary man (Tom Hardy) behind the wheel of a vehicle, communicating with outsiders through Bluetooth tech – has actually spawned enough imitators to practically warrant its own subgenre. Jeremy Rush’s Wheelman is one of the better examples, essentially asking “what if we made Locke, but with Frank Grillo and car chases?” The answer to that question was a rather diverting action cinema experiment, capitalizing on its leading lug’s grizzled charisma.

Now there’s Jesper Ganslandt’s Beast of Burden, which takes the Wheelman experiment a step further and asks, “what if we did THAT, but made it about Daniel Radcliffe flying a drug smuggling plane from Mexico to America?” First time feature scribe Adam Hoelzel milks his high concept for a solid amount of drama, as Radcliffe’s dishonorably discharged Air Force pilot navigates rather unfriendly skies – dark thunderclouds rumbling, causing turbulence all around – as his shady employers keep dialing in through his headset. Ganslandt’s movie exits the cockpit on a handful occasions – namely to give us back-story about the flyboy and his cancer-stricken wife (Mamie Gummer) – but as soon as we return, cinematographer Michael Barrett (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) lights and shoots the interior of this one man aircraft rather dynamically, as Tim Jones’ portentous score keeps us constantly on edge. Every design element is working in sync to never let us feel comfortable, creating a remarkably cramped ambiance.

One of the keys to these claustrophobic genre exercises working – beyond an engaging central performance (which we’ll get to in a second) – is filling these mobile spaces with voices who, despite us never seeing their sources, layer in multiple dramatic strands that manage to escalate like any other narrative. It's black box theater inside a moving transport and Beast of Burden does a pretty excellent job painting a clear picture of what’s at stake for the pilot, should his cargo not reach its final destination. First, there’s his smarmy cartel handler Pablo (Cesar Perez), and then a rather pesky DEA agent (Pablo Schreiber) breathing down his neck. As if the pressure of trying to keep all this a secret from his ailing love was enough, suddenly she’s scared by a threatening car that pulls up outside their house, and the bagman (Robert Wisdom) who comes along with it. By the time a spying drone plane pulls up alongside his tiny craft, we’re essentially waiting for the drug runner to suffer a panic-induced stroke.

Daniel Radcliffe has been working overtime to distance himself from the Harry Potter franchise lately, and Beast of Burden feels like another line – pairing with the undercover cop picture Imperium – onto the budding DTV star’s resume. Like that police officer (or the Israeli backpacker in Greg McLean’s Jungle last year), he’s trying to slip a “just like you” mask over his recognizable, boyishly bespectacled mug. One has to imagine that shedding the skin of a true icon – as “The Boy Who Lived” will always carry a near Skywalker level of worship in certain circles – is an insurmountable challenge for most performers, but Radcliffe acquits himself rather well. We actually buy him as a desperate everyman, breaking the law because he’s broke and the government’s offered healthcare for the woman he loves should he turn State’s witness. So, consider Beast of Burden another notch in the “win” column for Radcliffe, as he continues to stretch himself in new (yet familiar) ways.

Unfortunately, Ganslandt’s film fails to really tack on a solid conclusion to this otherwise nerve-wracking tale, and the final act falls somewhat flat. Still, Beast of Burden is a noble entry into the post-Locke “run all night” narrative category. With Magnolia Films releasing The Guilty – a Danish kidnapping thriller set entirely inside a police dispatch center – later this year, we’re seeing a new form of the “telephone game” translate to rather intriguing cinema. Hopefully, filmmakers continue to play with the defined “rules” Knight laid out in that initial Hardy vehicle, as its proven to be quite the training ground for up-and-coming artists looking to exploit the talents of movie stars desiring to do as much acting from the seated position as humanly possible. 

Beast of Burden is available today on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD.