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Review: John David Washington’s ‘Beckett’ character belongs in a drama, but finds himself in a thriller

A man with a blue cast and a stain on the arm of his shirt looks behind him.
Watch your back: John David Washington is an American tourist caught in a murderous spiral during a visit to Greece in “Beckett.”
(Yannis Drakoulidis / Netflix)

The first clue that the John David Washington starrer “Beckett” is not a typical thriller is that its director is ... Ferdinando Cito Filomarino.

That name might not ring a bell, but the Italian Filomarino (great-nephew of Luchino Visconti) was the second-unit director for Luca Guadagnino films including “Call Me By Your Name,” and Guadagnino is a producer on “Beckett.” So despite its genre and big-name stars — Washington and Alicia Vikander — Filomarino’s second feature has the texture, atmosphere and attention to character of a small European film, rather than the one-liners and physics-defying action of a big-budget popcorn movie. By the way, it’s also suspenseful and involving.

The titular Beckett is an American on vacation in Greece with his beloved girlfriend, April (Vikander). Pure chance throws the business systems integration specialist into a situation he couldn’t have dreamed possible. The rest of “Beckett” is a tense manhunt story, with the tourist desperately scrambling in a strange land where he can’t hide in plain sight. He’s Black in a country in which virtually no one looks like him, he doesn’t speak the language and his wounds are difficult to disguise.

It’s a ‘70s paranoia movie in the best sense. And this is no hackneyed tribute; it’s complex, murky, propulsive. In that genre’s tradition, it pings off recent political events, though the specifics would be a spoiler to discuss (the trailer, should you choose to view it, does contain spoilers). Suffice to say it’s the classic scenario of an ordinary person in way over his head: We share Beckett’s confusion as he runs for his life, trying to figure out which end is up.

Knowing this is a thriller, the opening scenes — a leisurely stroll through this couple’s relationship — might seem out of place , but it’s the right setting for this everyman. He might actually envision his life as an easygoing romantic drama (or perhaps comedy). That he’s thrown into a nonstop chase with his life at stake is as crazy to him as it would be to any of us (apologies to anyone practicing evasive parkour and stoically taking bullets in the extremities on the daily).

Beckett is no superhero. He’s intelligent but makes mistakes. He gets hurt. The fights and flights are admirably sloppy — no one here is a crack shot, there aren’t any spinning roundhouse kicks. The action is painfully real (perhaps with one exception, though even then, to achieve an emotional truth).

“Beckett” takes a welcome step back from the pace and volume that today’s thrillers consider baseline. The story and chase never stop moving, but not at breakneck speed. Filomarino lets in the beauty of Greece. He pauses to appreciate a one-eyed cat. Oscar winner Ryuichi Sakamoto‘s superb, tactile, stress-inducing music is a muted “internal” score reflecting the protagonist’s state of mind.

The acting befits a drama. Boyd Holbrook (“Logan”) and Vicky Krieps (“Phantom Thread” and the current “Old”) are effective in their roles, and even the random folks who help Beckett along the way read as fleshed-out characters. UCLA-trained director and writer Panos Koronis makes a calm, excellent heavy. Oscar winner Vikander is the very picture of the one, the woman with whom this guy would fall completely in love. The first time we see them out and about, with her bed head and unpainted face, April glows with warmth. Yet Vikander is a skilled enough actress that, even from the start, despite their intoxication with each other, there are layers to her feelings — they recently fought and we feel that, too.

Washington’s everyman is believably human, with his cleverness and limitations. The actor has the difficult task of balancing Beckett’s roiling grief with the adrenaline his survival instinct pushes through his body, and he mostly succeeds. One wishes there were more of that emotion poking through the surface to visibly drive him to the film’s satisfying conclusion. But that’s a small thing compared to “Beckett’s” virtues, of which there are many.

'Beckett'

No rating

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

Playing: Starts streaming on Netflix Aug. 13


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