A mixed-race boxer in Manila tries to undo the wrongs wrought by a fixed fight in “Beast.” Promising debut feature for brothers Tom and Sam McKeith captures that city’s humid, teeming life with atmospheric familiarity, while its not particularly complex character writing and narrative get an additional boost by newcomer Chad McKinney’s lead performance. In nearly every scene, and with relatively little dialogue, he delivers a strong, thoughtful screen presence that lends “Beast” its substance. Beyond New Director-type showcases, commercial exposure will likely skew toward streaming sales.
Pugilist Jaime Grey (McKinney) has his hands full looking after ne’er-do-well American father/manager Rick (Garret Dillahunt). While the family’s Filipina matriarch is apparently working abroad — and, judging from the evidence of her occasional brief phone calls, eager to keep a cautious distance, even psychologically, from her menfolk — the interdependent father and son have a lopsided relationship, as Junior is clearly accustomed to supporting his rather hapless, drink-prone elder, monetarily and otherwise. Still, he abides by dad’s decisions. That proves a bad idea when he agrees to cheat in the ring (where he’s known as “The Beast”) by putting hard plaster inside his glove to ensure a bout win.
The resulting very hard hits hospitalize his opponent, who later dies from the injuries. Stricken with remorse, Jaime leaves his father sleeping off a night’s post-match revelry while he tracks down the victim’s widow, Divina (Angeli Bayani), offering money she refuses to take. Later he learns shady crime boss/fight fixer Danny (Will Jaymes) means to silence the woman (who suspects foul play) permanently, so he drags her and her young son Alvern (Whyzel Myo Indonto) from their slum flat to a hotel room, intending to send them off into the country and presumed safety the next day.
Grieving and furious, Divina is not happy to be stuck with her husband’s semi-accidental killer, refusing to assuage his guilty conscience. Meanwhile Jaime fends off frantic calls from Rick (who’d gladly sacrifice his son’s reluctant charges to save his own skin), eludes Danny’s goons and burns off tension with his own drunken misbehavior.
Though the protagonist’s feelings are seldom articulated (let alone his and dad’s backstory), the brawny but expressive McKinney communicates an innate goodness that has seemingly evolved without much adult guidance. When Jamie makes a climactic sacrifice simply in order to do the right thing, it doesn’t feel contrived because the thesp has already persuaded us that this character’s convictions might lead him that far.
Nevertheless, screenplay could have used a bit more eventfulness and detail. While appreciable as a thriller concept treated in slice-of-life terms, pic ultimately feels more amorphous in narrative terms than strictly beneficial. Still, the McKeith siblings’ observations of street life supply consistent interest in a generally well-tuned package highlighted by Mike Steel’s largely nocturnal widescreen lensing. “Beast’s” immediacy is given a boost by the absence of any original score, with only overheard music surfacing in the ambient sound design.