Previously we’ve seen actor-director Jim Cummings attempting to navigate a custody battle whilst processing his own grief in his breakthrough feature Thunder Road, then he went on to confront his daddy issues and catch a murderous werewolf in his follow up effort, The Wolf of Snow Hollow. In his latest project, The Beta Test it’s the world of top Hollywood talent agencies and saucy sexual encounters that find themselves under his cinematic spotlight. Cummings certainly can’t be accused of unoriginality or creative complacency, that’s for sure.
For his latest film he collaboratively writes and directs with PJ McCabe, who also stars alongside him in the film. Cummings plays Jordan Hines, a successful talent agent in Hollywood who’s in the midst of planning his wedding with fiancé Caroline, played by Virginia Newcomb, whilst McCabe plays his best friend and work colleague, PJ. The pair are working tirelessly to close a deal with an important client, however when Jordan receives a mysterious invitation all of his plans begin to fall apart.
The film starts with an immediately gripping sequence full of suspense and brutal violence, a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in any typical big budget thriller. Although, whilst not a completely true indication of what is to come later in the film it does set up the basic premise of The Beta Test well. It introduces audiences to the mysterious purple envelope clad invitation that Jordan will soon receive, welcoming him to an anonymous sexual encounter with an unnamed admirer. Of course Jordan accepts the invitation, ultimately endeavouring to discover who is behind it and as a result his increasing paranoia becomes the driving force behind the film’s narrative.
Those who are familiar with Cumming’s previous films will know that he plays characters on the edge very convincingly and The Beta Test is no different as he delivers a collection of his trademark breakdown sequences here as well. These contribute in further establishing him as an actor who is a master of taking his characters right to their limit and back again. In addition to this his paranoia is also conveyed by the frantic editing and range of camera angles his scenes are shot from. These creatively show audiences just how far from content Jordan is whilst dealing with the unusual events happening to him, whilst simultaneously being affected by his own uncomfortableness existing in a post-Weinstein era of cancel culture and digital footprints. Christian Bale’s energy as Patrick Bateman from American Psycho comes immediately to mind whilst watching Cummings, who only ever feels a few small steps away from producing a nail gun or chainsaw of his own. Even if at times his constant agitation can begin to become tiresome there’s no denying that he delivers characters like this expertly.
The film’s narrative is constructed well too, the attention grabbing opening unlocks the potential fallout of the anonymous invitations. Then Jordan’s involvement and subsequent investigation allows audiences a fuller understanding of the unfolding mystery. Things take somewhat of a downward spiral though when this mystery is neglected in place of a greater focus on Jordan and Caroline’s relationship, however the constant satire on Hollywood means that The Beta Test is mostly entertaining and consistently has something more to say than any average thriller.
There’s no doubt that Cummings continues to impress, conquering another genre in his ever expanding repertoire of films – he really does have that rare I can’t wait to see what he does next, excitement about him that in all honesty can’t be said about the majority of directors working today. The Beta Test is a timely satire on Hollywood successfully meshed with erotic-thrillers of previous cinematic decades. His leading performance as the unhinged and ever on the edge talent agent is convincing as always, however a break from this kind of character in future roles would do him no harm. Nonetheless, it’s what’s needed here and his portrayal will most likely make audiences’ skin crawl as he holds up a telling mirror to Hollywood, exposing the attitudes and behaviour that are unfortunately still prevalent in the industry today. Too soon? Absolutely not, and Cummings isn’t wasting any time.
Blue Finch Film Releasing presents The Beta Test in cinemas 15 October, 2021