Have you ever accidentally stumbled or — in the case of the titular hero of Netflix’s Beckett — careened downhill, by way of a fatal car accident, into an international political scandal? Some things only happen to people in movies. What’s curious and invigorating, but also somewhat flawed, about Beckett is the way it maneuvers its path through the fate and psychological tumult of its central character, a man thrown into a whirlwind of grief that coincides with his accidental involvement in a scandal he knows nothing about, set in a country where he does not speak the language, and where the ostensible allies at his disposal are both far out of reach and, even when he reaches them, hardly as trustworthy as he would hope. The premise is ripe; the thrills are rich; the payoff doesn’t come together quite as easily as the rest.
But much of what’s here is good — more interesting for verging on the ridiculous, giving us a man whose motivations make most sense when you remember what must be going on in his head. The movie stars John David Washington as Beckett, an American tourist on vacation in Greece with his girlfriend, April (Alicia Vikander). Suffice it to say: something terrible happens. And in the midst of that horror, Beckett gets a glimpse of something — someone — that he shouldn’t, will indeed soon wish that he hadn’t. Beckett and April’s restful vacation happens to overlap with a country’s harrowing political unrest, spurred, most immediately, by the kidnapping of a major political figure’s nephew. It is a grave political situation, as Beckett discovers over time, one thought to be incited by a far-right nationalist party that has ties to, among other institutions, the police. Soon, because of what he’s seen, Beckett is a man on the run from exactly the authorities he would need to make his way out of this maze. Who he can trust, where he will go: all, for a time, linger as open questions.
So, this is a movie with a mix of situations at play, overlapping and competing for our and Beckett’s attention. A title hero nearly undone by, not only grief, but overwhelming guilt; a regular man fashioned into a man on the run and, in important ways, completely in the dark; a stranger in a strange land, where the citizens he’s forced to lean on for aid wind up paying the price for their assistance, and where the political situation hovering on all sides feels much larger than any one person can comprehend.
It’s a role that begs for a go-for-broke performance from an actor we can believe in, and Washington — a good actor — is charged with hitting a wide range of notes, almost akin to a classic Hitchcock hero. He’s got to be weary, confused, suspicious of most anyone he encounters — and director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino makes good on that weariness with canny reaction shots and moments, many of them subtle, in which Beckett takes a breather and all the tiredness grows in. But there’s another streak, a somewhat erratic throughline, coursing through the movie and Washington’s performance, too. Beckett has an injured arm throughout most of the movie, and yet there doesn’t seem to be a ledge that the man won’t jump off of: At one point he steps over the railing of a parking garage, and you can’t help but think, Oh, God. It feels completely irrational, like watching a regular guy — hardly your typical action hero; not a man who exactly jumps off of bridges and over rocky cliffs with anything like grace — suddenly get a bug to enact a death wish. In the name of what, becomes a question. Grief emerges as the primary answer.
But there’s that whole political angle to grab ahold of, and on this front Beckett proves mystifying, unsatisfying, even as this is always what allows for a pair of great supporting performances: by Vicky Krieps, as earth-angel and political activist Lena, and by Boyd Holbrook, as an employee at the U.S. embassy in Athens who — well, let’s simply say that he catches more than a couple of Washington’s sidelong suspicious glances. Filomarino — who has to this date primarily worked as the second unit director for Call Me By Your Name auteur Luca Guadagnino — makes good on these actors’ qualities, on our instinctive trust and distrust. Beckett isn’t the director’s feature debut, but the movie has the rattling curiosity and excitability of one. The movie flies along, risks the ridiculous, doesn’t entirely add up, but also proves sharp in some of its observations, as during one great scene in which Beckett stumbles off of a train onto a platform and, trusting no one, is palpably overwhelmed by a sense of, Now what?
The film’s original title was Born to Be Murdered. I’m glad they changed it — the “born to be” vibe doesn’t quite square, on the surface, with a central characterization more akin to a life thrown in flux by unexpected error and immeasurable grief. It’s true, on the other hand, that there’s a thin underlayer of fate, of a disruptive destiny, lurking just under the skin of everything that happens — a sense of how things might have turned out differently if only Beckett and April had stuck to their original plans, rather than veering off course into the unexpected. The movie doesn’t quite make the most of this idea’s power, nor of any of what feel like its bigger ideas. But when its nose is to the ground — when Beckett is speeding along, trying to make sense of this world — it works, and it works well.