“Beast of Burden” places a number of burdens on the audience, almost none of which are worth enduring.
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, who’s displayed a taste for difficult fare like “Swiss Army Man” since shedding his Harry Potter shackles, “Beast of Burden” starts uncertainly and does little to improve its trajectory.
Written by Adam Hoelzel and directed by Jesper Ganslandt, this frustrating independent film is an ineffective knockoff of 2013’s “Locke,” which starred Tom Hardy and was written and directed by Steven Knight.
That film is a real-time drama that unfolds inside a moving BMW during the 85 minutes it takes construction foreman Ivan Locke to make a nighttime drive from Birmingham to London.
As played by Hardy, Locke is not only driving, he is engaged in an almost continuous series of phone conversations as he desperately attempts to keep the various parts of his life from collapsing in total ruin.
But while “Locke” creates tension, “Beast of Burden” becomes more irritating the longer it goes on.
The scene this time around is not a car but a tiny one-seater Cessna aircraft, where Radcliffe’s character, a harried Sean Haggerty, is introduced staring anxiously at the dials on the plane’s instrument panel. It turns out he has a lot to be anxious about.
A drug mule flying heroin across the border for one of those super-ruthless Mexican drug cartels, Haggerty is on this night playing a risky double game.
He’s trying to convince the cartel everything is on the up and up, though he’s planning to betray them to Drug Enforcement Agency operatives who have promised Haggerty a new life and expensive medical treatment for his ailing wife.
Though he’s nominally flying the plane, Haggerty spends almost all his time having a series of phone conversations with the people who are pushing his anxiety level into the stratosphere.
First there is wife Jen (Grace Gummer), who has no idea what her husband does for a living and is frantic about her medical condition.
Then there is Bloom (Pablo Schreiber), the DEA operative who desperately wants a laptop filled to the brim with critical cartel information and has no hesitancy in calling Haggerty “a beast of burden on borrowed time.” That has got to hurt.
Also phoning in are various representatives of that dread cartel, the most sinister being Mallory (Robert Wisdom), who sounds like he eats small potatoes like Haggerty for breakfast.
Though all this looks acceptable on paper, experiencing “Beast of Burden’s” inept dialogue and uninspiring direction on screen is a continual trial.
Though “Locke” kept faith with its concept for its entire length, “Beast of Burden” hedges its bets, devoting just over an hour of its running time to Haggerty’s troubled flight, which includes the man giving himself stirring pep talks on the order of “You’re fine, Sean, just do your job.”
The remaining half hour is spent in a number of low-voltage pursuits. We get time with Jen and her husband at the doctor’s office, meet some members of the cartel and endure endless shots of that Cessna moving through the clouds that look like they came out of a 1930s Republic serial.
And, not to give too much away, the film’s conclusion takes place on the ground as well. Yes, it is nice to get outside that claustrophobic plane, but any pleasure “Beast of Burden” provides is decidedly short-lived.
‘Beast of Burden’
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s NoHo, North Hollywood