John David Washington shot “Beckett” before last summer’s “Tenet” put the actor on a short list of potential action figures. But when it comes to this considerably more modest, Greece-set manhunt movie — which kicks off the Locarno Film Festival before releasing via Netflix on Aug. 13 — it helps to look at Washington (son of Oscar winner Denzel) as a different kind of character: not your conventional Hollywood hero so much as an average guy caught up in a deadly conspiracy.
Washington plays the eponymous American tourist, who’s roughly the kind of out-of-his-league everyman that Alfred Hitchcock gravitated toward in classics such as “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and “North by Northwest.” But director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino isn’t operating by that playbook as much as audiences might think, which might disappoint those who find the movie on Netflix and expect a straightforward thriller. The suspense is much subtler, the set-pieces less sensational, as Beckett reacts in ways that betray that this guy wasn’t cut out to intervene in an elaborate plot to extort and potentially assassinate a Greek politician.
Beckett simply wants to survive, but the character’s psychology is made even more complicated by the mistake that got him into this mess: While vacationing with his girlfriend (Alicia Vikander), Beckett falls asleep at the wheel. The car flies off the road and smashes into a stone house. What he sees there — a blond woman with a redheaded child, disappearing into the shadows — will directly endanger his life, even if he doesn’t understand what to make of it.
When Beckett goes back to the site of the accident, he appears still to be in some kind of daze, unaware what he might be looking for. Beckett doesn’t realize he’s the main character in an action movie, so he’s oblivious to the fact his life is threatened when, in a startling deep-focus trick shot, a woman strides into the background of the frame, draws a gun and fires straight at his head. Of course, that shock jolts him into action, as Beckett scrambles for cover. But every decision he makes for the next hour or so seems to be blocked by a kind of incredulity on his part: Beckett can’t believe that the local police officer (Panos Koronis) might be corrupt or that his contact (Boyd Holbrook) at the American consulate in Athens might be mixed up in things.
Audiences, on the other hand, have undoubtedly seen their share of innocent-man-on-the-run thrillers. Maybe not as many as Filomarino, whose 2015 Italian poet biopic “Antonia.” was lovely to look at but far less representative of the director’s own taste than this project. An original idea scripted in collaboration with American screenwriter Kevin A. Rice, “Beckett” reflects the kind of genre fare Filomarino avidly consumes in his free time, bingeing work by John Carpenter, Brian De Palma and Monte Hellman — at least, those are the names that came up in conversation when I last saw him in Los Angeles.
The up-and-coming Italian helmer was together with Luca Guadagnino then, and the latter serves as producer here, helping to attract the top-level cast that fill the lead roles (including “The Phantom Thread” standout Vicky Krieps as a political activist who assists Beckett as he tries to escape the authorities), though it’s the faces of the less recognizable supporting actors (like the beekeeping couple) that make the greatest impression here. Ironically, the coup of landing Washington in the lead could be seen as a weakness by comparison, since he’s well-known enough that it’s easy to overlook or misinterpret the choices he makes for the role: how Washington put on weight so Beckett wouldn’t look the part of an athletic action hero, for example, or the way he appears dazed and slow to react for much of the film.
If Beckett seems too trusting of strangers he meets over the course of the movie, that’s only because audiences are primed to expect that anyone could betray him. Same goes for decisions to hide out or dress his wounds — pauses liable to have people shouting at the screen for him to keep running. In Hollywood movies, protagonists rarely sustain the kind of injuries Beckett does, whereas he gets shot, stabbed and punched up plenty. Plus, there’s the matter of what happens to Vikander’s character, which would be all but unthinkable in a test-marketed studio movie.
But if Filomarino resists giving people what (they think) they want from a thriller — down to the decision to follow Beckett while a major figure gets killed off-screen — then what is he up to exactly? Unlike conspiracy classics like “Three Days of the Condor” or “Z,” this movie is not about the political plot Beckett stumbles into. By the end, he has enough of an idea of the bigger picture to understand why the cop and others have been trying to eliminate him, but more significant to Filomarino than solving that puzzle is witnessing the moment where Beckett changes from a would-be victim trying to save his own life to a proactive hero, who risks dying to rescue the kidnapped boy he spotted after the accident.
Much of Beckett’s behavior feels clumsy and improvised early on, as when he tries to steal a motorcycle and fails miserably. By the end, however, he has evolved from a guy we can identify with to someone we respect, culminating in a foot chase through pandemonium-stricken streets (impressively staged in Athens) and a death-defying jump that would have been completely out of character for him when the story began (when Beckett was worried about his girlfriend stepping off the path at a Greek ruin). Will Netflix viewers get that far in the movie, or will they flip over to something more conventional when this one lags? Hard to say, but it’s intriguing to see Filomarino experiment with the formula and exciting to imagine where his career might go from here.