Dancing around all the elements of genre but teasingly refusing to commit to that angle definitively, Argentine filmmaker Agustina San Martín’s feature debut To Kill the Beast playfully resists giving into our expectations and is all the better for it. With a number of successful short films already under her belt and her vast experience as a screenwriter, cinematographer and colorist, To Kill the Beast lacks any indication of first-time filmmaker jitters. Here, San Martín brings her expertise and – perhaps more importantly – her clear instinct for when to push and when to hold back with graceful aplomb. What results is a stylish, highly intelligent and emotionally complex movie about gender, self-discovery and the very nature of threat itself.
Now playing at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival in the Discovery stream, To Kill the Beast follows 17-year-old Emilia (Tamara Rocca) who travels to a strange border town straddling Argentina and Brazil. With the largely unexplained yet overwhelming presence of her mother’s death weighing on her, she comes somewhat hesitantly but is equally determined to find her missing brother Matteo from whom she has been estranged and with whom she has unarticulated unfinished business. Staying in a hostel owned by her rather unpleasant aunt Inés (Ana Brun), as Emilia searches for Matteo she makes new connections and new discoveries about herself, all in the shadow of a small town haunted by the rumored presence of a shape-shifting man who proves a threat to the town’s women.
Running just under 80 minutes, To Kill the Beast is a succinct and elegant film. Admirable for this lack of flab (a rare treat in today’s cinema landscape), San Martín’s pacing is impressive; never rushed, despite its short run-time it has a powerful rhythm, and reveals a filmmaker who understands the value of silence and stillness as much as noise and action. A highly sensory film focused largely on Emilia’s initial investigation that evolves into a journey of self-discovery, the collaboration between Rocca and San Martín certainly lies at the film’s heart; a quiet character who rarely shows her hand, Rocca brings to Emilia an authentic dignity as she is thrust into a series of situations that she clearly has little experience to know how to navigate.
Like Emilia herself, San Martín’s winning card here is that she allows her characters – indeed, her story as a whole – the right to keep its secrets. Shot with a captivating watercolor-like quality, the film is marked aesthetically by smudgy, dark hues, everything – just like the narrative and characterizations themselves – granted a slightly blurred quality. If it’s a supernatural story or a missing persons mystery that you are after, with this slow burner San Martín instead she offers us is something altogether more tantalizing. To Kill the Beast offers no grand, spectacular supernatural reveal literally or metaphorically, but rather its focus is on a kind of ambient sensuality that grows within the film’s foggy, hazy atmosphere, making the film even more opaque, enigmatic and intriguing.