The Beta Test [Grimmfest Review]: Thrilling Purple Packages
Hollywood has always seemed a strange place to those on the outside, satirised by some and worshipped by others. Falling firmly into the former category is The Beta Test, a film that, using black comedy and a sharp satirical lens, breaks down the Hollywood myth whilst examining the toxic masculinity it often perpetuates. These men live in a world of ass kissing, forced smiling and fake platitudes where it can be easy to succumb to any offer of something real, and even easier to snap once they’ve tasted it. This fall into temptation leads to a string of spousal murders that begin occurring all around LA, disgruntled partners violently attacking and killing their unfaithful lovers, but only those in the know will understand the true catalyst behind these slayings.
Jordan (Jim Cummings) appears, on the surface, to have a great life. He’s a Hollywood agent who creates high paying package deals, whatever the hell they are, has a loving fiancé, enthusiastic co-workers, and a wedding on the horizon. Things are looking good for this successful man until he receives a mysterious letter. A beautiful purple envelope with delicate gold handwriting, and inside it an invitation to have an anonymous sexual encounter. Just like a wedding invitation on which you select the chicken or the fish, Jordan is given some options about his own preferences. He ticks the ‘Dominant’ box. Of course he does. This alpha male would see himself no other way. After wrestling with his decision for at least a day, his RSVP is mailed and he soon receives a hotel key that promises him more than just a solitary night’s sleep.
“…a believable landscape of bitter hollowness peppered with surreal energy that is entirely intriguing throughout the film’s run.”
Unfortunately for Jordan, his steamy one-night stand takes a toll and threatens to demolish his personal life, ruin his relationships and, even worse, tarnish his career. As a character, there is something about Jordan that is both utterly repellent and yet strangely sympathetic. Like the suit wearing, scotch drinking, business card wielding, ego driven men we have seen numerous times before, be it Mad Men’s Don Draper or American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, there is something irresistibly charming about Jordan. Despite the fact that he embodies every narcissistic, self indulgent and entitled antihero trait on the list, he is simply compelling to watch. As he spirals downwards, losing control of his personal and professional life, he must wrestle with the idea of becoming obsolete and make a choice about what is important to him, and who the hell he actually is underneath his gym body and that shit-eating grin.
There are two themes colliding in The Beta Test. One, a story of internet data and how your search history could lead to your soul mate. The notion of a modern adultery service that knows your wants and can cater to your needs all from scraping your online footprint. Yet, even with this invasive measure, it cannot guarantee your happiness, or in the case of many who use the service, your safety. The other is a scathing look at the smarmy life of a Hollywood agent, always wanting more without paying for it and living for appearances instead of real substance.
Cummings, as a true independent filmmaker, undercurrents the film with a message about the industry itself, particularly packaging, something a lot of people may not fully understand, myself included. After educating myself a little (I found this article particularly useful) it’s safe to say that there is both a necessity, and an abject bravery, in the way this film approaches this issue. Both Cummings and McCabe, the writers, spoke to eleven different members of the agency world about the packaging battle and it paid off in their knowledgeable approach. Just like American Psycho, this film jokes about what these people actually do, if they do anything, and the façade of their whole existence. It balances this critique by also playing on erotic thrillers of the 80s and 90s, the films that revolved predominantly around men throwing away their settled life for one tryst with passion. This keeps the tension high and the humour just a little bit naughty.
Jim Cummings co-wrote, co-directed, edited, and even took on the lead role in this film, truly setting himself out as a ridiculously multi-talented star on the rise. Alongside him as both his co-writer and director is PJ McCabe, and together they create a believable landscape of bitter hollowness peppered with surreal energy that is entirely intriguing throughout the film’s run. Their collaborative process pays off in the way the dialogue flows with believability and hilarity. Just like Cummings’ two previous films, Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow, The Beta Test mixes thrilling suspense with a dark comedy bite that culminated in some brilliant laugh out loud moments in the screening. A bit of violence, a dash of humour, a sprinkling of face sitting and an underlying message about the industry itself makes The Beta Test a darkly thrilling viewing experience.