There’s a whole subgenre of inspired-by-real-life legal thrillers that emphasize the ecological horrors of life under capitalism. Erin Brockovich, Michael Clayton, Dark Waters — they draw a clear line between the profits collected by corporations, the devastation inflicted on the natural world, and the reasons people get sick. But those films are firmly realistic, people-arguing-at-tables dramas. The indie thriller Behemoth shoulders its way into this cinematic subset with a similar “Companies are killing us” theme, but it uses an array of visual effects that flirt with sci-fi and fantasy to lend 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 ’90s B-movies that used to air on UPN in the early-morning hours, in that gap of time perfect for stoned college students and kids staying up too late? Behemoth has the best and worst elements of those movies, with a skimpy script and thin characters, but also with an urgently conspiratorial tone and a creatively rendered visual world, packed with rotting faces, insect/human hybrids, and blood spilling out of orifices. There’s a monster extending tentacles of barbed wire, animals covered in sores and rotting flesh, wilting plants and withering flowers. Behemoth intermittently reveals its low $65,000 budget with CGI work that’s a little clunky around the edges, and with production design that feels constrained to empty locations and scant extras. But as the sum of its parts, it has a blunt impact.
Director Peter Sefchik is a longtime VFX artist who’s worked on films like Thor: The Dark World and James Cameron’s Avatar. Behemoth, his directorial debut, is driven forward by Joshua (Josh Eisenberg), a former sales representative for the global chemical company De Pointe, which is so powerful that it “would make the Boogeyman shit himself,” according to Joshua’s friend Dominic (Richard Wagner). (If you want to be deeply depressed, read about the actions of DuPont and the inspiration for Dark Waters.)
After 10 years of working at De Pointe and seeing myriad reports describing the company’s role in countless eco-disasters, Joshua becomes a whistleblower to draw attention to De Pointe’s practices. But as he’s waging a one-man war in the press and denying De Point’s claims that he’s mentally ill, his young daughter becomes dangerously sick. No one can figure out what is wrong, and Joshua and his wife Amy (Whitney Nielsen) grow apart as he obsessively falls down a conspiracy-theory rabbit hole, and tries to track down what De Pointe-affiliated toxin could be infecting their daughter.
After months of failed effort, Joshua finally sees an opportunity. De Pointe’s global head of research and development, Dr. Luis C. Woeland (Paul Statman), is appearing at a conference — and Joshua, Dominic, and Dominic’s girlfriend Keelee (Jennifer Churchich) spontaneously abduct him, hoping he’ll offer some answers when he’s tied to a chair and physically threatened in a motel on the outskirts of town. But Joshua’s lawyer warns him, “These are really powerful people. They don’t get ashamed. They get even.” Dr. Woeland is no pushover, and he delivers a steady, smirking stream of pithy insults toward Joshua’s “novel mix of stupidity and tenacity.” And there’s something off, something not quite human, about his bodyguard Azello (Vadym Krasnenko), who in Terminator fashion begins to track down the kidnappers.
Sefchik describes Behemoth as inspired by the question “What if a group of activists kidnap a powerful CEO, only to realize that the man is not what he seems?” But it takes a while for that story to get going. The film spends too much time on Joshua’s paranoia, his friction with Amy, and his Internet sleuthing about Dr. Woeland. That exposition-heavy intro illustrates the issues with the film’s stilted script, which was co-written by Sefchik and Derrick Ligas, and doesn’t do its characters or performers any favors. The only person who really chews on this dialogue is Statman, whose highly expressive face ricochets between bemused and enraged, easily and often. His line deliveries communicate a sarcastic, elite man irritated by the inconvenience of being kidnapped, and he’s absolutely the cast’s most naturalistic actor.
In spite of the stiff performances (in particular from Eisenberg, who seems to mistake woodenness for intensity), the characters’ emotional arcs feel right: Joshua’s desperation and anger, Keelee’s yearning and fear, Dominic’s impulsiveness and cowardice. They’re supported by the film’s visuals, which offer up disquiet, terror, and gore: a bullet dug out of a stomach that then writhes Annihilation-style; a decaying human face frozen in a smile; a multi-limbed monster chasing down a person, seizing their head in its jaws, and then biting down with zeal. Editors Adam Janeczko and Kasia Lesniak rely too much on quick cuts to bombard the audience with shocking imagery. But Sefchik also knows when to slow down, forcing viewers to assess every iota of the cinematic frame, waiting for the inevitable fantastical elements.
What’s that creeping behind Dominic in a parking lot? Why does Keelee’s reflection move independently of her? Why is the sculpture of a little girl in Joshua’s motel room crying bloody tears? Relishing the spooky stuff also means accepting that Behemoth’s dialogue sometimes sounds like it was written by an AI generator attempting to mimic human logic. But when the film shifts into gear after about the first 40 minutes, its entertaining moments help secure an acceptable degree of throwback success.