The family vacation gone awry is such a routinely fraught, fruitful dramatic setup that it practically qualifies as its own genre. Yet while various horror films might bring external threats into proceedings, Chilean helmer Jorge Riquelme Serrano’s exceptionally poised, frozen-hearted “Some Beasts” finds all the danger it needs in the family itself: a well-to-do clan of urbanites who, once detached from the mainland on a remote island getaway, abandon all semblance of civility to escalatingly violent, abusive effect. Winner of the top prize in San Sebastian’s New Directors competition — presumably on the strength of its fierce formal control and confident narrative provocations — Riquelme Serrano’s sophomore film will divide audiences, not all of whom will gladly stomach its most extreme scenes of sexual assault and emotional cruelty.
While international distributors weigh up the risks and rewards of the project, “Some Beasts” should continue to be a festival-circuit talking point, with its profile boosted by the presence of leading Chilean thesps Paulina Garcia and Alfredo Castro atop the ensemble. They alone make the film more sellable than Riquelme Serrano’s less polished but arresting 2016 debut “Chameleon,” an über-nasty home invasion thriller that established the writer-director’s Haneke-esque interest in chilly, vicious class politics. As in that film, the inherent cynicism in “Some Beasts” never quite tips over into satire; debate will center on whether the film’s message, such as it is, justifies the sometimes grotesque means.
There’s less arguing, however, with its expert technique and cultivation of atmosphere, beginning with cinematographer Eduardo Bunster Charme’s eerie, vertiginous establishing aerial shots — suggesting all human activity here is under some kind of omniscient, scientific scrutiny. A thoroughly discombobulating soundtrack, meanwhile, is full of sourceless echoes and chimes: Carlos Cabezas’ score and Isaac Moreno and Peter Rosenthal’s sound design mesh into one quivery, uncanny whole, intensifying with the rough weather.
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Indeed, the literal storm starts rising practically the second our unhappily moneyed family steps off the boat onto a small, all-but-unpopulated island off the Chilean coast. There’s a single beachside house there, tucked amid lush greenery, and youngish couple Alejandro (Gaston Salgado) and Ana (Millaray Lobos) have plans to turn it into a luxury hipster resort. They need some capital, however, from Ana’s tight-fisted, high-maintenance parents Dolores (Garcia) and Antonio (Castro), who swiftly surmise that they haven’t simply been invited on a carefree, no-strings family holiday.
From there, already prickly tensions between the adults come blatantly to the surface: In particular, Dolores and Antonio make no attempt to mask their contempt for Alejandro and his working-class roots, referring to him as an “imbecile” in front of the increasingly distraught Ana. He gets off lightly, meanwhile, compared to local laborer Nicolas (Nicolas Zarate), who’s assigned to be the family’s general dogsbody. Within a day, he’s questionably accused of groping Alejandro and Ana’s teenage daughter Consuelo (Consuelo Carreno), before being sexually harassed himself by a drunken Dolores; his disappearance the next day may not be entirely voluntary.
Patterns of abusive behavior within the family are thus established early on, with the less privileged as their initial victims; given their isolation, it’s only a matter of time before they turn on each other in brutal, unseemly ways. Riquelme Serrano tracks their devolution into savagery with a patient, dispassionate gaze, often using long takes to itchy, feverish effect: One brilliant, agonizingly sustained shot sees a rainy-day family boardgame session escalate by degrees into a near-hysterical brawl. In scene after scene, the director and his DP’s tendency toward tidily symmetrical compositions works in pointed contrast to the spiraling domestic disorder within the frame.
The actors essay their largely unlovable roles with cool-blooded aplomb. Garcia, best known to international audiences for more warmly vulnerable roles in “Gloria” and “Little Men,” clearly savors her against-type casting as a voracious monster-in-law; Castro, who certainly has form in playing inscrutable sociopaths, must carry the film’s most actively upsetting development with rather less relish. If they’re ultimately limited by the razor-thin characterization of these very bourgeois beasts, that’s at least partly by design in Riguelme Serrano’s queasily accomplished film. The rich aren’t merely not like us, it says — they may not be human at all.