When dealing with a “fuck around and find out” movie about a bloodthirsty lion violently terrorizing an American family who decided to go on the wrong South African safari, I didn’t expect my main takeaway to revolve around the cinematography.
Soft focus is the name of Beast’s game; damn near every shot is a close-up of an actor in sharp focus as the camera ceaselessly roves around them, with the precise contours of the nature backdrops behind them remaining relatively blurred.
Each of these components bolsters the audience’s fear in different ways.
The pervasive close-ups keep the audience’s view locked into the characters’ fatally-claustrophobic circumstances, submerging us in their plight; we’re stuck right along with them, ever by their side…with a freaking hungry lion nearby…somewhere.
And the roving camera reenacts their frantically scanning gazes — WHERE’S THE LION WHERE’S THE LION WHERE’S THE LION — but not through a first-person mirroring. We don’t see what they see; we don’t don their eyes, so to speak. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, especially when they’re facing the lens.
Which is an approach that operates on multiple levels. Privying us to what’s behind them / outside their field of vision provokes that classic audience response of, “TURN THE FUCK AROUND, YOU DUMBFUCKS!!!”
And, crucially, the purpose of each and every move of the camera is not always self-evident based on the onscreen action. Even before the lion crashes the party, the camera is constantly moving, often circling the characters as they do nothing more than shoot the shit, the sort of non-spectacle rarely accompanied by such spatial flourishes. It’s almost like the camera is giving us a tour of the environment around the characters at all times (I mean, it’s a safari movie after all).
This aesthetic introduction establishes that the camera’s movement may not always be guided by an obvious calculus; the camera moves even when there doesn’t seem to be something major nor self-evidently noteworthy to clock on screen, which makes such movement feel almost random, leaving the audience to diagnose the frame for ourselves and what therein is worth our attention.
This randomness comes back to haunt us in the ass as soon as the lion starts the hunt. With such horror situations in other movies, the camera tends to move in accordance with the source causing the horror; the camera pans left, and the audience can anticipate seeing something fucked up on the lefthand side.
But because Beast’s camera is always on the move from the get-go, and not always moving in the direction of something specific to see, the audience is always on guard, on the lookout for the lion to yet again JUMP (scare) us by suddenly bursting out of the camouflaging bush, at junctures impossible to predict from the camera’s wayward movement.
Which is when the soft-focus background strikes! Because we can’t observe the surrounding nature clearly, and because the camera’s movement can’t be used as a direct indicator that something new is about to happen, our eyes frenetically scan the characters’ clouded perimeter to quell our feline dread, on the ocular prowl in an attempt to glimpse *any* sign of the next attack. For our own peace of mind, goddamnit!
The lion slowly stalks its prey incognito, just out of our perpetually oscillating sight, and we’re the prey.