Indie cinema’s jack-of-all-trades filmmaker Jim Cummings returns with his third and most ambitious feature yet: an erotic thriller that takes aim at everything from social media to superficiality; masculinity to Hollywood itself.
Jim Cummings’ second film, The Wolf of Snow Hollow, is an arresting beast. It’s a blend of blood, laughs and the late, great Robert Forster in a horror-tinged tip of the hat to the Coen brothers’ subversive crime caper Fargo. Bursting with intensity, eccentricity and potent shades of pathos, Cummings’ narrative modus operandi—stories often helmed by brash, reckless protagonists (almost always played by himself) who tread a thin line between pitiful loser and redemptive underdog—has a distinctly zany lineage across his three-strong filmography.
Cummings isn’t one for convention. A funeral setting, a faulty pink CD player, a semi-choreographed dance routine and an indelible one-shot opening ten minutes made Thunder Road, the writer-director-actor’s debut feature and winner of the Grand Jury prize at SXSW in 2018, a memorably unapologetic thrust into his world of offbeat tragicomedy. The latest of these, The Beta Test (co-written and co-directed with frequent collaborator PJ McCabe), takes a similar character—although certainly more hateful than heroic—and drops him into a slippery, social media-age erotic thriller seasoned with a generous squeeze of Hollywood satire.
Cummings plays Jordan Hines, a self-important talent agent who, shortly before he is due to tie the knot with fiancé Caroline (Virginia Newcomb), receives a mysterious invitation to a blindfolded, no-strings-attached sexual encounter with a stranger in a hotel room. But who sent it? Are there really no strings attached? And is this person really a stranger in a Silicon Valley-era of superficial connection? Such questions soon embroil Hines in an obsessive search for answers, scouring the streets of Los Angeles with increasing desperation as a B-movie-style, down-the-rabbit-hole narrative begins to unfurl, one that invokes the divisive, labyrinthine wackiness of films like David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice.
It is taut and high-energy stuff: a sugar-rush of outbursts and chance encounters that chart an industry insider’s spectacular fall from grace as Hines’ efforts to untangle himself from a web of lies and infidelity work increasingly to the contrary. At the centre of it all is an intriguing juxtaposition of masculinity and vulnerability, with Hines’ journey—soundtracked by several sudden eruptions of classical music—taking the viewer beneath the thin veil of LA’s glitzy lure and into a dark underbelly of deception, violence, murder and dental veneers. As his protagonist repeatedly fails to live up to his inflated opinion of himself, Cummings’ film neatly unfurls as a disassembling of the male ego: a cutting examination of men in perceived positions of power shrewdly set against a backdrop teeming with them. (The Weinstein name is never once uttered, but references to “Harvey” are plentiful.)
Cummings once again proves a magnetic screen presence. With impressive physical fervour and a knowing smirk that is at once charming and maniacal, he is an extremely watchable performer. An actor with an increasingly evident aptitude for playing individuals who are equal parts assertive, unhinged and helpless. However, like the confounded character he plays here, The Beta Test feels far less assured in its attempts to say something truly meaningful. In the end, the ideas, of which there are many, feel underserved by the film’s swift, economical run-time, while the third-act revelation lacks the notable clout of earlier scenes. But in forsaking formula and familiarity in favour of something altogether more ambitious, Cummings again shows his worth as a filmmaker willing to do things a little differently.
The results may not always be wholly satisfying but, in the pursuit of something innovative and new—in trying to wrong-foot the audience at every turn—the risk is sometimes worth taking. For better or worse.
Anchored by another enjoyably off-the-wall performance from its creator, The Beta Test is fuelled by a melting pot of ideas, not all of which are left to stew away for long enough. Still, this is yet further evidence of Cummings’ wonderfully distinctive, fledgling talent.
Words by George Nash
Support The Indiependent
We’re trying to raise £200 a month to help cover our operational costs. This includes our ‘Writer of the Month’ awards, where we recognise the amazing work produced by our contributor team. If you’ve enjoyed reading our site, we’d really appreciate it if you could donate to The Indiependent. Whether you can give £1 or £10, you’d be making a huge difference to our small team.