A sun-drenched thriller featuring Jeremy Irvine battling to survive against the harshness of the Mojave Desert from a malevolent rifle-wielding Michael Douglas doesn’t sound like the worst way to spend 90 minutes. The ingredients are all there for a fast moving and suspenseful western ride, but even with its short running time and high profile villain, Beyond the Reach still manages to be an absolute bore. Devoid of personality, directionless and with a number of crudely executed sequences, Beyond the Reach offers next to nothing as a film that you couldn’t get just as easily from watching the trailer.
Based on Deathwatch, the ominously titled novel by Robb White, Beyond the Reach sees Michael Douglas’ high-rolling finance man Madec hire Jeremy Irvine’s salt-of-the-earth Ben as a local tracker for a hunting expedition into the Mojave Desert. Naturally, the arrogant millionaire’s carelessness gets them into trouble and he unintentionally shoots and kills an old hermit living out in the wilderness. Fearful that Ben will turn him in, Madec strips Ben down and sends him off to die of exposure in order to frame him for the murder – without the added complication of having to explain why Ben also died from a gunshot.
Despite the slow trudge to get there, there are some fun thriller elements to Beyond the Reach once it all gets going. The man vs. nature themes of the film don’t quite work as well as intended, but the Mojave does make for a fun setting that keeps Ben forever on his toes, desperately searching for a moment’s reprieve as Madec watches menacingly through the scope of his gun. Likewise, as contrived as many of the scenes feel, the film does a good job of not only explaining why Madec needs Ben dead, but also why he can’t just shoot him (though this is probably more praise for the book than the movie).
Sadly, these moments of tension are separated by long stretches of inactivity, awkward character interaction, and wacky ideas that make Beyond the Reach near impossible to buy into. A prime example is the dead hermit’s furnished and well decorated cave that somehow has enough electricity to leave all his lights on, his record player cranking out tunes and his mannequin dancing partner spinning merrily around while he heads off to wander the desert for hours on end. It can be a fun exercise when movies try to flesh out eccentric characters after they die by trifling through their belongings, but this is all just a bit too zany for a movie that wants you on the edge of your seat and not leaning back in it chuckling.
The bigger problem is the sheer cartoonishness of the film’s antagonist. It’s tragic for an actor of his standing, but Douglas’ Madec is lifeless, distracting and simply not threatening. Madec is conceived as a powerful sociopath thrust into a situation that allows his demons to come out, but aside from how dull he is, the film keeps throwing uninspired comedic beats about his wealth to ensure he’s too goofy to ever actually be scary. The dinner oven and deluxe coffee machine built into his truck were bad enough, but when he begins shaking a cocktail mixer and makes himself a martini as he sits back in his deckchair in the middle of the desert while gleefully watching Ben slowly dying, he’s pretty much solidified as a Saturday morning villain. I can’t help but think how much more effective a villain he could have been if we stayed with Ben and left him as an off-screen menace, taking potshots and taunting over his loudspeakers. I guess if you get Michael Douglas for your movie you have to give him something to do, even if it totally derails the tone of the film.
While Irvine’s Ben isn’t much more interesting, at least he feels comfortable in the role unlike with Douglas’ phoned in performance. Irvine can feel a little wooden, but it doesn’t necessarily ring untrue for the role and he makes up for it with his authentic exhaustion while he’s out dying under the desert sun. While far more believable than Madec, Ben is doubly as vapid and hollow. No matter how admirable a performance Irvine could turn in, there was simply no making Beyond the Reach’s hero the slightest bit interesting. There are some attempts at shoehorning in some at-home personal problems to make him seem more human, but any empathy this awards (which isn’t much) is swiftly discarded by Ben’s willingness to sell out and take Madec bribes when he clearly disagrees with what he’s doing.
With the tone of the movie all over the place and the only two characters we see for the majority of the film complete write-offs, the last hope for Beyond the Reach is in giving us some tense action sequences. To be fair, there are some moments with Ben scrambling around as disciplinary shots are fired at him that work to build suspense, but for the most part the action is the most poorly executed part of the film. Given the scale of Beyond the Reach, the action should have been fairly straight forward, but somehow director Jean-Baptiste Léonetti manages to make a mess of it with clumsy construction and contrived beats.
It all feels decidedly amateurish, with the film’s climax in particular feeling sub-par for a student film let alone a professional piece of cinema. I try to avoid talking about endings in a review, but in this case it stands out as the most irredeemable factor of an already disappointing film. For such a simple, and frankly underwhelming, sequence, the director makes some absolutely bizarre choices here that will have even the most passive cinema-goer baffled as the credits come up. I truly cannot wrap my head around what Léonetti was trying to do here.
For a film as simple and sparse as it is, Beyond the Reach makes some strange choices that defang any of the suspense that comes with its concept. Structurally it works fine as a film, but it’s far too amateurish and unremarkable to ever be taken seriously. A war of attrition was never going to be the most exciting war to watch, but even as a tale of survival Beyond the Reach is as dry and vacant as its Mojave setting.
THE REEL SCORE: 4/10