The existential experiment The Beta Test feels like a revelation in today’s arthouse scene. In his exciting satire-dramedy-horror-thriller, Jim Cummings explores Hollywood’s underbelly and, as a modern-day Woody Allen on ketamine, raises the standard of neurotically eccentric acting to a whole new level.
The films of Jim Cummings, not very well known in the Czech Republic, stand apart from Hollywood filmmaking for at least two reasons. The first one is Cummings’ unorthodox approach to film genres and the second is his extremely overwrought protagonist. He is frantic, unbearable and always on the verge of a nervous breakdown because who isn’t these days?
In short, Cummings focuses on the impact of social pressure on individuals, and he has created a universal protagonist for that purpose. And you don’t always need a nobody from a small town to succumb to social demands and one’s own demons, it can just as easily be a successful Hollywood agent with a perfectly manicured life.
Funerals, divorces and werewolves
Cummings introduced his neurotic character for the first time in the short film Thunder Road (2016) that won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize. The 12-minute continuously shot film follows the gradual, expressive breakdown of a young policeman while giving a eulogy at his mother’s funeral. This maniacal balancing act that shifts from extreme awkwardness to sympathy captivated not only festival jury members but a lot of fans who later helped Cummings and his team raise money to turn the short film into a feature. The eponymous Thunder Road (2018) starts at the funeral. The policeman and a divorced dad of a nine-year-old daughter struggles to keep his life together even as it is clearly coming apart. This sober social drama about family breakdown is unique for the erratic behavior of its protagonist that is not at all gratuitous but serves as one of the major catalysts for the entire story. The protagonist finds himself in a vicious cycle of breakdown because he is losing everything that he cares about but, at the same time, he is losing everything because of his manic behavior.
Cummings’ next film, The Wolf of Snow Hollow (2020), follows a very similar pattern. A dysfunctional small-town community, a divorced cop trying to salvage his relationship with a teenage daughter, and angry fits at the most inconvenient moments. And don’t forget aggressive werewolves! Cummings’ second feature is infused with his genre-busting joy. While absurd situations and choleric outbursts carry a lot of comedy potential, the background plot is more akin to a social drama and the main story is a crime thriller or horror with elements of fantasy. The main motif – a cop trying to convince his colleagues and community members that the brutal attacks in town are the work of people, not werewolves – also operates on a premise that is common in this genre, i.e., all protagonists accept the existence of supernatural beings with unnatural ease.
Broken ego, illusions and teeth
Cummings’ latest offering, The Beta Test (2021), takes genre mixing even further. With the skill of an acrobat on speed, he jumps from violence to sentimentality, from stereotypes to social insight, without ever reassuring the viewer as to what is actually going on.
The opening scene captures a husband and wife who are having dinner. Suddenly, a brutal murder takes place that feels as intense as trashy thrillers or as the opening scene in Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990). The conflict involves a purple envelope with an invitation to a hotel room to enjoy casual sex with a secret admirer.
Later Jordan Hines receives the same envelope. He is a Hollywood agent with a perfect apartment, perfect teeth and life. He accepts this absurd invitation and, six weeks before his wedding, he gets into a frenzied whirlwind of investigation and Hollywood conspiracies, and with each new clue he is closer to total insanity. All carefully built illusions about his own life start breaking, not to mention his well-kept teeth. Between Jordan’s hilariously explosive monologues and his desperate efforts to save his career and his relationship, there seems to be little concern over other murders of cheating partners that follow.
Halfway through the film, Jordan’s best friend PJ reveals that the entire scenario is an intentional business plan based on the theft (or sophisticated reading) of personal data from social media. This current issue is not treated as a cheap way to promote safer online behavior but simply as one of common problems in the Western world. On the other hand, the stereotypical hacker does feel a bit lazy as a character. The pale loner hiding in a dark basement and making money off wealthy, cheating engaged couples is too formulaic and heavy-handed for this refined psychopathic puzzle.
In a subversively entertaining twist, the confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonists is not even the climax of the movie and unfolds in a very unrewarding way. Even though Jordan hits him over the head with a hammer, the evil hacker quickly recovers, humiliates Jordan and kicks him out of his dingy basement. Logically, the climax of the story coincides with the total breakdown of the protagonist.
The maniacal gushing of honesty that recounts the previous struggles of Jordan’s character (and all that is wrong with Western civilization) is being watched by Jordan’s fiancée who has tears in her eyes and a pair of garden shears in her hand. Instead of a brutal attack, we get forgiveness. Jordan’s distraught confession might be the only reason he was spared. That, or the fact that his fiancée gave into the purple envelope just like him.
The cynical happy ending illustrates Cummings’ desire to make films differently. He uses his protagonists as a mirror that in its own distorted way reflects back on fragmented society and Hollywood. In addition to its subversive approach to genre and cliché, the movie explores the very workings of the film industry’s largest hub. It is not entirely clear what exactly Jordan’s company does and why, which helps dismantle the façade of some agency concepts. Through the arrogant, chauvinist alpha male, Cummings takes on the issues of sexism and pervasive hypocrisy.
Fortunately, Cummings avoids the kind of hypocrisy that is often associated with critique of Hollywood. The Beta Test was made thanks to a massive crowdfunding campaign without the involvement of a major studio, Cummings received help from his friends and then edited the entire movie in his garage. Cummings is a truly independent filmmaker who can legitimately criticize Hollywood. Although his movies can be cynical at times, his process offers hope that with enough determination and enthusiasm, anybody can make their own film. While such declarations may feel exaggerated or suspect, Cummings actively promotes this message. Armed with real-life examples, he uses his Twitter account to motivate young filmmakers, attends workshops and webinars, and he even published a free manual on how to start making films from scratch (A Field Guide to Making Movies in 2018).
Despite the austere conditions mentioned above, The Beta Test is technically polished. In fact, it formally comes across as a standard American movie before gradually revealing its subversive potential. This could confuse some film fans who might expect a traditional horror movie but instead, they get a dose of existential insanity. The overwrought acting style, inconsistent logic in character behavior or the story narrated in straightforward hints and bold outlines does not have to suit every viewer. Simply The Beta Test according to its own set of rules. The viewer can either accept them and enjoy an uncommon experience or reject them and shake their head for days to follow.
Deranged visions to Czech cinema
Cummings is a filmmaker with a unique vision and style who wants to have complete creative control over his movies. Apart from acting, he is also involved with screenplays, directing and editing. He developed his style in a series of short films. His dramatic single-shot movies (Thunder Road, Robbery, 2016; The Mountains of Mourne; It’s All Right, It’s Ok; Hydrangea, 2017 – all legally accessible on Vimeo.com) share exploration of different social issues, hidden emotions and all of them have a strong ending that is often lacking in short films.
Unlike in his previous films, Cummings is not the sole creative force behind The Beta Test. It was co-written and co-directed by PJ McCabe who also plays Cummings’ best friend in the movie. They are best friends in real life, and this might explain the electrifying chemistry between the protagonists and individual elements of the movie. Compared to Cummings’ other films, The Beta Test is also considerably more layered and complicated, and getting a creative partner on board was a sensible move. Collaboration with McCabe fits in with Cummings’ deranged visions. Since both filmmakers claim that they are currently working on an epic Victorian horror comedy, we can look forward to another obscure allegory that upends film stereotypes. Let’s hope that these rules of the game will be accepted by an increasingly larger number of viewers and industry players, including local distributors, and Jim Cummings’ films will finally find their way to Czech theaters.
THE BETA TEST
Directed by: Jim Cummings, PJ McCabe
93 minutes, USA / UK, 2021