Antoine (Denis Ménochet) and Olga (Marina Foïs), a French couple in their 50s, moved to Galicia (northwest Spain) to run an organic farm. They’ve rehabilitated a stone cottage on their property, making it into a comfortable and cozy home, and are conscientious about using farming techniques that won’t deplete the soil. They seem to be nice people who make an effort to get to know their neighbors and are serious about making a new home here, while also maintaining a friendly long-distance relationship with their adult daughter Marie (Marie Colomb) and her young son.
One set of neighbors is not so friendly, however: Xan (Luis Zahera) and his brain-damaged brother Lorenzo (Diego Anido), who live with their mother (Luisa Merelas). They express hatred toward the new arrivals out of all proportion to anything we’ve seen Antoine and Olga do, and at first seem to be nothing more than classic bullies motivated by an exaggerated hatred of outsiders. Most of the farmers in the area have worked their plots of land for decades, if not generations, and Xan feels threatened by these French transplants and their newfangled ways of farming. Certainly the insults he piles on Antoine—calling him “Frenchy,” saying he’s pronouncing Spanish wrong—suggest Xan just hates anyone different.
It turns out there’s more at stake—the real issue is that the farmers have a chance to sell their land to a company who wants to build a wind farm there. Given how difficult it is to scratch a living out of the hilly, rocky terrain, most would happily take the payout and move elsewhere, revealing that love of their native region doesn’t run so deep after all. The problem is that everyone has to agree to sell or the deal is off, and Antoine is one of a handful of holdouts.
Xan and Lorenzo are determined to get what they want, by force if necessary. They start with intimidation, like trespassing on Antoine and Olga’s property at night and peeing on the furniture. The threats and vandalism escalate from there, including destroying an entire harvest by poisoning the water supply, but the local police aren’t taking the complaints of these outsiders seriously. In an attempt to capture evidence, Antoine begins videotaping Xan and Lorenzo, but he’s remarkably bad at it, with the result that he infuriates them without capturing any footage that would be useful in court.
It’s obvious where the conflict between Antoine and the brothers is leading, and the cover image on the DVD case gives you a good idea how it gets “settled.” That’s only the most predictable outcome of this dispute, however, and the film becomes much more subtle and yet more interesting when focus shifts to the relationship between Marie and Olga, then shifts yet again to take the story in a final and unexpected direction.
Although there’s a lot more action in Rodrigo Sorogoye’s The Beasts than in one of my favorites from a few years back, Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years (2015), the experience of watching either film is similar in one key aspect. They’re both pretty good if also pretty unsurprising for most of their running time, then shift gears in their final minutes to deliver a shattering conclusion that relies almost entirely on the performance of one actor.
Sorogoye and Isabel Peña’s screenplay for The Beast has its roots in an incident that took place in Galicia in 2010 and was the subject of the 2016 documentary Santoalla. It’s a profoundly upsetting story given a gripping treatment, a remarkable achievement given that much of the plot line is predictable given when you see in the opening minutes. That it works is a real tribute to everyone involved in making this film, which won over 50 international awards. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Beasts is available on DVD from Kino Lorber and on streaming from Kino Now beginning Sept. 26. There are no extras on the disc.