The erotic thriller is dead. Long live the erotic thriller.
The belief that the sexy sub-genre is dying has been cruelly overestimated. The days of the bombastic A-list illicit thriller may no longer be with us. Those hedonistic times are long gone. The enticing sub-genre of sensual criminal bedfellows has been indecently displaced by changing audience tastes, distribution methods and the internet. Despite this, streaming services are still dipping their toes in a small wealth of titillating trash for fans to enjoy.
Each entry of the 365 Days trilogy (2020-2022) positioned itself at the top of the Netflix charts, despite each one being royally dismantled by the audience and avoided completely by critics. Recent titles such as The Voyeurs (2021) and Deep Water (2022) have suggested the craving may still be gnawing at a more diminished audience. And so, The Beta Test enters the fray. Now indie filmmaker Jim Cummings trying his best to set an example of where unchecked horniness can take us.
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Everyone knows a guy like Jordan Haines at their workplace: a wannabe jock-lite try-hard. Mean to underlings, loutish and annoying. There was one thing about the lockdown. Once it had people working from home, I’m sure many were happy they could avoid their Jordan up close and personal. Such characters have made the Hollywood agent stereotype feel commonplace as if Buddy Ackerman was a blueprint, not a warning sign. A Hollywood executive whose charm isn’t as smooth as he thinks it is. While his wandering gaze lingers on the attractive women around him for a tad too long. The Beta Test is the darkly comic tale of how Jordan’s wandering hands push him into a web of anxiety-driven paranoia, after accepting the offer of an anonymous sexual encounter.
Jim Cummings is slowly becoming one of the masters of the male millennial breakdown. In each of his directed features, he highlights himself as a problematic man whose frailties slowly build up and eat at him from the inside. The amusement does not just come from the deadpan delivery of his performances. It also stems from the fact that the characters are authority figures. Driven to the brink by their failures, they scramble for prominence or authority, ignorant that any control of a situation has long slipped past their fingers.
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To that effect, his characters, especially Jordan, are perfect for an erotic thriller. Like Basic Instinct‘s Nick Curran, Jordan is so deluded by his surface ego, along with his genitals, that he is blind to see how his decisions allow trouble to wrap around him like an anaconda. He is a prime erotic thriller fall guy. With his teeth constantly grinding, Jordan scuttles around L.A. desperately seeking out more about the Hollywood Eyes Wide Shut movement he’s fallen into. A purple enveloped event to a secretive thirst trap which leaves Jordan cotton-mouthed. Instead, the agent lusts for the inner workings over a taste of round two.
The Beta Test pushes Cummings’ free-falling modern man into an obsessive world ruled by the data. Cummings allows Jordan, with his tetchy tics and awkward gait, to become the perfect conduit for a dying industry. The film makes no bones in making snarky quips at elements of what the Hollywood dream machine has become. Critics questioned the seemingly disparate narrative joins over the overall ambition. I however beamed at a film which was happily willing to name-check the 2014 Sony hack. An event that markedly notes the behaviour of the characters we watch.
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Paranoia rules over these wanna-be super-agents now. It can be felt in nearly every interaction Jordan has with someone, not in the business. Yes, Weinstein is the figurative monster that everyone can clamp on to. However, the behaviour found within those gossipy emails felt indicative of Hollywood behaviour when sight unseen. Staying away from some of the labyrinthine plot, the film’s climatic revelations are a chilling indictment of not only our social behaviour but also of Hollywood’s current wayward trajectory. The film is the Ashley Maddison data breach writ large. The issue with Jordan is he now knows why PR is paid so much for damage control. Jim’s concern is the focus on how Hollywood might not know what to do with certain talent.
The Beta Test is perhaps Cummings’ most controlled film in terms of craft. Co-directed with the film’s co-star PJ McCabe, the film is wily in how it allows the camera to hold a voyeuristic gaze, but never an offputtingly explicit one. The film’s combination of American Psycho (2000), The Assistant (2019) and Chinatown (1974), not only creates an unpredictably tense tone but allows the film to become more interesting upon subsequent viewings. The film’s sexual moments may not reach the heights of titillation for cinema perverts. However, they are integrated into the narrative far better than so many more gratuitous sequences. Like his previous features, The Beta Test is very much the Jim Cummings show. Whether or not his panic-ridden performances will run out of steam may come into debate in the future. However, for now, the man is worth every scene he directs himself in.
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Arrow Video’s bumper two-disc Blu-ray is rich with enjoyable extras. Arrow’s ever-consistent video essayist Alexandra Heller Nicholas notes the spiritual malaise that taps into the heart of The Beta Test, noting the parallels between Jordan and Patrick Bateman in a way other reviewers were not able to. Critic Adams takes a closer look into how hotels in films have shaped how audiences view them. The film’s making-of documentary is unfortunately shorter than one may hope for, however, it highlights the secretive, money-driven element of Hollywood agents and the limitations that come from their approach.
The bonus disc features ‘Minutes’, a collection of interconnecting stories that deal with the most important minutes in the lives of 6 different characters. A short making-of-documentary features here as well. The disc is rounded off with another short film (Us Funny), and Cummings’ filmed excursions into Sundance 2016 and 2017. When you combine the volume of the bonus features with Cummings’ can do, DIY attitude to movie making, it’s hard not to feel that the filmmaker ascribes to a favourite Jay-Z lyric of mine: “Y’all think it’s bougie, I’m like, it’s fine / But I’m tryin’ to give you a million dollars’ worth of game for $9.99”. The Blu-ray UK retail price will probably be a little more than that, but the message is the same.
The Beta Test is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.