Much of director Jesper Ganslandt’s Beast of Burden takes place in the confines of a rickety, single-engine plane, with the pilot, Sean (Daniel Radcliffe), the only character seen on screen. The film is quite clearly inspired by Steven Knight’s Locke, not only in its use of a claustrophobic space to intensify the personal breakdown of its protagonist, but also in the way it dishes out nuggets of narrative information through an array of conversations via cellphone and radio. But Beast of Burden doesn’t stick to its guns, and perhaps as a means of standing apart from Knight’s 2013 thriller, it begins around its midway point to make room for a series of flashbacks that attempt to flesh out Sean’s emotional turmoil and past indiscretions that could just as easily have been communicated from within the plane.
As Sean flies across the Mexican border on what he deems to be his final delivery for a drug cartel, he stressfully bounces from one call to the next, forced to juggle the competing demands of a pushy D.E.A. agent, Bloom (Pablo Schreiber), two cartel contacts, Octavio (David Joseph Martinez) and Mallory (Robert Wisdom), and his wife, Jen (Grace Gummer). The growing concerns of his suspicious wife as well as his attempts to play both sides of the drug war—he’s working with the D.E.A. but is still planning to deliver the cartel’s goods for cash to pay for Jen’s escalating medical bills—should all make for compelling drama. But Beast of Burden leans far too heavily on wooden dialogue that mechanically delivers expository information about key plot points and Sean and Jen’s now-contentious relationship.
The film’s flashbacks, which are either too clipped or excessively scored, are even less organic, effectively stepping on the actors’ toes. The flimsiness of Adam Hoelzel’s screenplay is only further heightened by the film’s unsightly monochromatic look, which amplifies the cheapness of the ever-present green-screen work. Where Locke was able to visualize a compelling interior world for Tom Hardy’s protagonist while hinting at an emotionally rich exterior world without him ever leaving the driver’s seat, Beast of Burden fails to do so for Sean even when freeing him from the restrictive point of view of the script’s central conceit. The uninspired writing and directing leaves Radcliffe virtually on his own to breathe life and a sense of urgency into a character with less shades of complexity than his farting corpse in Swiss Army Man.