It’s a classic plot: throw some morally questionable people into a dire situation and see who goes carnal first. When approached poorly, these stories can be among the ugliest and dullest in cinema. But when explored from angles of character and raw desire and desperation, there are wealths of dark truths to unleash. Recently shown at the Fantasia International Film Festival, Gabriela Amaral Almeida’s debut feature film, Friendly Beast (aka O Animal Cordial) fiercely proves the latter point.

The cruelties are petty at first, as they usually are. Coldly charming Inácio, owner of a high-end but unpopular restaurant, forces his cook Djair and spineless waitress Sara to stay late for two new customers. Anyone who has ever worked in food service will recognize their behavior—the proud tearing down of the wait staff, nitpicking at each other until any number of people are ready to snap. When two amateur robbers break into the restaurant and Inácio disarms them, things erupt, and go from bad to worse—smuch worse.

From the first minute of the film, tension is high. Almeida introduces us to her very limited world through realistic detail, a real understanding of workplace politics, and subtly unsettling dialogue. When she unleashes violence upon us, we’re horrified, but not exactly surprised. We watch Inácio (played with Patrick Bateman savagery by Murilo Benício) practice for an interview in the bathroom mirror, spitting what we know are lies. We see Sara’s glances at him, given fractured but pitiful desperation from Luciana Paes. We feel for Irandhir Santos’ martyr-like Djair, a brilliant chef trapped by his unjust boss. They’re good people, weak people, bad and worse people. These characters are real, and they all want something. And as we start to realize what they’re capable of, the film takes a deliberate slide from suspenseful to disturbing.

Almeida’s command of her macabre scenario is stunning. She orchestrates classic thrills in the beginning, but pushes us straight into the meat grinder with a series of increasingly grotesque and bizarre scenes. Even if the situation is extreme, the actions remain subtle and specific, like stealing a dead person’s earrings to seduce someone, or flirting in the presence of a man who’s bleeding out. The scenes of depravity and violence are gut-wrenching and weird, but never campy or sensational. We also learn that death isn’t the worst thing that can be delivered to our characters. Human cruelty is endlessly inventive and dynamic, which Almeida recognizes and uses to her advantage as she constructs an ever-shifting plot. Trying to guess who’s the most sadistic of the bunch would be fun, if it weren’t so close to home.

It’s not that there aren’t holes in the story—certain motives are never really brought to light, and the ending might not satisfy every viewer—but the sheer force of Almeida’s characters ensures that nerves are properly shredded. In fact, this is the kind of horror film that leaves one without a whole lot of hope in humanity. Its dark exploration feels so honest, though, because it’s all centered around authentic personalities. This forces us to ask the question: do we know people who are capable of this type of behavior? Where do we draw the line between human and animal, if there is one at all? Anyone who is willing to examine the barbaric side of desire must seek out this film and prepare for a taste of insanity.

Movie Score: 4/5

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Keep an eye on Daily Dead for more coverage of the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival, and check here for our previous news, reviews, and interviews for the festival.

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