'Beckett': how Netflix's new thriller turns the action hero trope on its head

The manhunt film, set against the backdrop of 2015's Grexit talks, stars John David Washington as an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation

John David Washington stars as the titular character in 'Beckett'
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Italian director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino always dreamt of making a manhunt thriller like Costa Gavras's Missing or John Schlesinger's Marathon Man.

And, encouraged by producer and friend, Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino, that dream is now a reality.

Beckett, which premiered under the stars at Switzerland's Locarno Film Festival this month, arrives on Netflix this Friday, bringing together a star-studded cast in a tense, tight drama.

"My mission was to find something original that would be interesting for audiences today and personal to me," Filomarino tells The National.

He first jotted down some ideas in 2015 after the release of his very different debut, Antonia, a biopic about Italian poet Antonia Pozzi, set in high-society 1930s Milan.

"I wanted to know what would happen if the archetypal hero in those films was just an ordinary guy," Filomarino says.

Beckett, which stars John David Washington, Vicky Krieps and Alicia Vikander, follows an American tourist, on holiday in Greece, who becomes the target of a manhunt after a devastating car accident.

The titular Beckett, played by Tenet's Washington, has to find a path across the country to the American embassy in Athens, in a bid to clear his name. Along the way, he runs into groups of left-wing and far-right activists battling for the future of Greece amid the tensions of the Grexit talks in 2015.

The idea was to generate a premise for a dramatic character who happens to be in a thriller. The film begins more like a relationship drama. I wanted to fuse these two genres a little bit
Ferdinando Cito Filomarino, director

While names and events have been changed – the Golden Dawn group that rose to prominence during Greece's financial crisis of 2009 is called Sunrise in the film, for example – the inspiration is clear.

"Obviously, the plot is completely fictitious," says Filomarino. "I did my best to be truthful and do my research, speaking with locals and interviewing people who inspired specific characters in the film. But while I find it interesting to be inspired by real events, it would be silly, in my opinion, to use real people to create something fictional because then it's confusing."

Filomarino brought Washington, son of action star Denzel, on board, after becoming a fan when watching his performances in 2018's BlacKkKlansman and Monsters and Men.

The US actor admits he "didn't know much about what happened" in Greece in 2015, when elections were held to see if the country would exit the European Union to avoid austerity measures. So, Washington spent time reading up on the situation and talking to people in preparation for the role.

It was the opposite experience for Luxembourg-born actress Krieps, who plays Lena, a left-wing activist travelling from Germany to Greece to help campaign for democratic change. The events engrossed her as they unfolded in 2015.

"For us, it was such a big thing. It was very dramatic," she says. "There were all these people killing themselves in Greece at the time; the pictures were heartbreaking."

It will be intriguing to see what Netflix's audience thinks of a thriller that gives as much space to politics as it does to action.

"The voice [of the film] is very unusual for Netflix and that I find interesting," says Filomarino. "As a filmmaker, I thrive on creating something that can be original."

Beckett is certainly that. The eponymous character is so passive at the start of the film that his partner, April, played by Swedish actress Vikander, finds it a challenge to get him to do anything.

"The idea was to generate a premise for a dramatic character who happens to be in a thriller," says Filomarino. "The film begins more like a relationship drama. I wanted to fuse these two genres a little bit. When he begins to be hunted, we, also, experience a man going through his own turmoil and sense of guilt and mourning."

Washington found this aspect of Beckett fascinating. "That was the most challenging and intriguing part, where we see him, at first, complacent and OK with where he is in life. April is trying to push him constantly; she sees more in him than he sees in himself, so I call him a master of minimalism. He is doing enough, from the way he works to even the way he orders food, that he's not willing to try anything new."

But after the accident, everything changes. "We end up with a lot of guilt and redemption," says Washington. "I think, as an artist and as an actor, it is very exciting to explore this and try and bring to life this sort of experience."

The film is like a mirror, with the second half a reflection on the first, showing Beckett's personal evolution. Krieps was also drawn to this aspect of the script.

"There is this sense of disorientation. It's like you have two movies; you have the thriller and you have the whole political aspect, which the director calls background. However, I find it very much in the foreground, driving the action."

She was also intrigued by the passivity of Beckett's character. "It is an aspect of modern society where some people believe they don't play an important part in the world. So, they kind of hide in their passiveness. By being like this, they can then say, 'It's not me, I am not responsible, I'm not political.' But once Beckett meets my character, he is forced to wake up with the world chasing him."

Samuel Beckett may have been waiting for Godot, but in Filomarino's work, it seems Beckett has been waiting for Lena.

Beckett is on Netflix from Friday, August 13

Updated: August 12, 2021, 3:37 AM