dir. Jim Cummings & PJ McCabe
In the opening moments of The Beta Test a woman paces her balcony before picking up her cell phone and dialling 911. She wants to report a “domestic disturbance”, though all is quiet. Then, with quiet anxiety, she enters the apartment’s dining area where her partner sits, carving meat, making belittling comments to her, and gesturing with his steak knife.
How this scene escalates, with a sense of awful inevitability shot with cool observation, sets up one type of film: one of true-life horror that is the experiences of millions of women worldwide. However, very quickly directors Cummings and McCabe – who also write and star here – convert this into a very different sort of narrative, refocusing the locus of action on Jordan (Cummings), a well-groomed Hollywood agent who receives an unusual piece of direct mail in a purple envelope. He is invited, it promises, to a one off sexual encounter, and to accept this offer he simply needs only complete a short questionnaire listing his kink preferences. Jordan’s engaged, and initially throws the invite out, instead giving his attention – at least superficially – to doting fiancée Caroline (Virigina Newcomb). But Jordan is a thirsty man: for sex, power, status and acceptance, and it’s not long before he’s rifling through the trash to reply to this enigmatic missive, disappearing down a Kubrickian rabbit-hole of sex, mystery and compulsion.
Comparisons with Eyes Wide Shut are unavoidable, from its premise of enigmatic sex cults orbiting the rich and powerful to some mid-point motifs around masks and blindfolds. But whereas that film came out in 1999 – that legendary year of plethora masterpieces – Beta is undeniably post-millennial, wallowing in a cesspool of corpulent vice enabled, quickened and – to some degree – created by the internet. Jordan is simultaneously a product, victim and ideologue of the Insta-Generation: always perfect, always selling, always excited. But the disconnect between his filtered personage and interior insecurity is widening. As another character remarks to him at one point: “It must be absolutely exhausting pretending to be you.”
The stage then is set for a devastating satire that lampoons the narcissism of Hollywood (though, with just a little imagination, also that of all who present a curated self online, at work or with loved ones). The sense of slipping façade and internal desperation recalls Mary Harron’s adaptation of American Psycho (2000), retooled for a post-Weinstein age: as Jordan himself says at one point, despite the monstrous crimes of that former mogul, everyone still wants to be Harvey, such is the insatiable venality of the culture.
With this is in mind there is an uncomfortable dissonance between the comedy of Jordan’s unravelling and the painful reality of that opening set piece, the promise of victims’ stories not quite delivered and instead replaced by the story of another toxic male. Nevertheless, this remains a fascinating social commentary on the communal hell we’ve created for ourselves, with bars forged in social media, self-worship and relational breakdown.