On the surface you’d be forgiven for assuming The Beta Test is just another film industry picture, spending its minutes somehow justifying its existence as it hones in on the obnoxious and obnoxiously wealthy Hollywood players who wrongfully assume they’re untouchable in their town. The film has that air about it, but this satirical-cum-unnerving thriller executes its intent in a far more potent manner that proves difficult to ignore.
If the Jim Cummings/PJ McCabe effort was going to be likened to other titles you could link it as a “Falling Down meets The Player by way of Eyes Wide Shut directed by David Fincher” type film that centres itself around a Patrick Bateman-esque unhinged exec and the price paid for an evening of stimulated distraction. Our Bateman-adjacent figurehead is Jordan (Cummings), a soon-to-be-married agent who receives a mysterious envelope one day that earns his curiosity. Inside said envelope is a specific list of questions that, if answered, would lead him to an anonymous sexual encounter that is catered precisely to his desires and kinks.
As the film suggests through a variety of cutaway sequences involving brutal murder set-pieces, the downfall from agreeing to these encounters can be fatal for the involved parties, and as Jordan is highly strung enough as is, The Beta Test clearly delights in his gradual unravelling, with his bullshit and self shame combusting on one another in a manner that proves incredibly anxious for both his character and us as viewers.
There’s a danger to The Beta Test that further fuels its own fire when looking at the Hollywood system. Not looking to sugarcoat such an industry, Cummings and McCabe’s script takes aim at the discomfort and toxicity that runs rampant within. Scenes such as Jordan completely tearing down his assistant over her reasoning for wanting to work at an agency are so vile and restless to view that they are almost more unnerving than the oft-graphic violent set-pieces that are spattered throughout.
Though it has framed itself around a series of horrible people and their horrible deeds, The Beta Test is nonetheless a supremely watchable, alarmingly investing thriller that constantly boils with a devious sense of humour, allowing itself to never crumble under its own bad behaviour. Cummings and McCabe have created something intricately seductive here, leaning in to the audience market who appreciate their humour drenched in a pitch black dressing.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Beta Test is screening as part of this year’s Sydney Film Festival, which is being presented both in-person and virtually between November 3rd and 21st, 2021. For more information head to the official SFF page.