There’s an entire subgenre of legal thrillers based on true events that emphasize the environmental horrors of capitalism. Erin Brockovich, Michael Clayton, and Dark Waters all draw a clear line between corporate profits, environmental devastation, and the causes of illness. Those films, on the other hand, are firmly realistic dramas about people arguing at tables. With a similar “Companies are killing us” theme, the indie thriller Behemoth enters this cinematic subset, but it uses a variety of visual effects that flirt with sci-fi and fantasy to give its message a nightmarish surreality. Some of it is sophisticated and more of it is silly, but Behemoth is jarringly effective more often than not.
Remember those early-morning B-movies from the 1990s that used to air on UPN, in that perfect window of time for stoned college students and kids who stayed up too late? Behemoth combines the best and worst of those films, with a bare-bones script and thin characters, but also an urgently conspiratorial tone and a creatively rendered visual world filled with rotting faces, insect/human hybrids, and blood gushing from orifices. There’s a monster with barbed wire tentacles, animals with open wounds and rotting flesh, wilting plants, and withering flowers. With CGI work that’s a little clunky around the edges and production design that feels constrained to empty locations and scant extras, Behemoth intermittently reveals its low $65,000 budget. However, when taken as a whole, it has a weak impact.
Director Peter Sefchik is a VFX artist who has worked on films such as Thor: The Dark World and Avatar by James Cameron. Joshua (Josh Eisenberg), a former sales representative for the global chemical company De Pointe, which is so powerful that it “would make the Boogeyman spit himself,” according to Joshua’s friend Dominic, propels Behemoth forward (Richard Wagner). (Read about DuPont’s actions and the inspiration for Dark Waters if you want to be deeply depressed.)
Joshua becomes a whistleblower to bring attention to De Pointe’s practices after ten years of working there and seeing numerous reports describing the company’s role in numerous eco-disasters. However, while waging a one-man press war and denying De Point’s claims of mental illness, his young daughter becomes dangerously ill. No one knows what’s wrong, and Joshua and his wife Amy (Whitney Nielsen) grow apart as he obsessively falls down a conspiracy-theory rabbit hole in search of the De Pointe-linked toxin that’s infecting their daughter.
Joshua finally sees an opportunity after months of futility. Dr. Luis C. Woeland (Paul Statman), De Pointe’s global head of research and development, is scheduled to speak at a conference, and Joshua, Dominic, and Dominic’s girlfriend Keelee (Jennifer Churchich) abduct him on the spur of the moment, hoping he’ll provide answers when he’s tied to a chair and physically threatened in a motel on the outskirts of town. “These are really powerful people,” Joshua’s lawyer warns him. They aren’t embarrassed in the least. They retaliate.” Dr. Woeland is no pushover, and he hurls insults at Joshua’s “novel mix of stupidity and tenacity” with a steady stream of smirking insults. And his bodyguard Azello (Vadym Krasnenko), who begins tracking down the kidnappers in Terminator fashion, has something off about him, something not quite human.
Behemoth was inspired by the question, “What if a group of activists kidnaps a powerful CEO, only to discover that the man is not who he seems?” according to Sefchik. However, that story takes a while to get going. Joshua’s paranoia, his friction with Amy, and his Internet sleuthing about Dr. Woeland take up far too much of the film. The film’s stilted script, co-written by Sefchik and Derrick Ligas, illustrates the issues with the film’s stilted script, which does not do its characters or performers any favors. Statman, whose highly expressive face ricochets between bemused and enraged easily and frequently, is the only one who really chews on this dialogue. He’s the most naturalistic actor in the cast, and his line deliveries convey a sarcastic, elite man irritated by the inconvenience of being kidnapped.
Despite the stiff performances (especially from Eisenberg, who seems to confuse woodenness for intensity), the emotional arcs of the characters feel natural: Joshua’s desperation and anger, Keelee’s yearning and fear, Dominic’s rashness and cowardice. They’re backed up by the film’s visuals, which include a bullet dug out of a stomach that then writhes Annihilation-style; a decaying human face frozen in a smile; and a multi-limbed monster chasing down a person, seizing their head in its jaws, and then biting down with zeal. Adam Janeczko and Kasia Lesniak, the editors, rely too heavily on quick cuts to overwhelm the audience with shocking imagery. Sefchik, on the other hand, knows when to slow down, forcing viewers to scrutinize every pixel of the cinematic frame, anticipating the inevitable fantastical elements.
In a parking lot, what’s that creeping up behind Dominic? Why does Keelee’s reflection seem to move on its own? Why is Joshua’s motel room sculpture of a little girl crying bloody tears? Accepting that Behemoth’s dialogue occasionally sounds like it was written by an AI generator attempting to mimic human logic is part of enjoying the spooky stuff. However, once the film gets into gear after about 40 minutes, the film’s entertaining moments help it achieve an acceptable level of throwback success.
Behemoth opens in theaters and on digital rental platforms like Vudu and Apple TV on August 27.