Over the past few years, Jim Cummings has become one of the most promising up-and-coming filmmakers, not only on the indie scene, but in the world of filmmaking. Cummings has proven himself to be an individual with something to say about the fragile masculinity in toxic men, the disregard and overreach of law enforcement, and (in both his previous outings) the correlation between those two ideas. What struck me about both Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow was the humanity that Cummings brought, not only from the script and behind the camera, but from his incredible performances featured in both films. Needless to say, I was very curious and excited to check out his latest film (this time with co-writer/director/star PJ McCabe), The Beta Test.
The Beta Test follows Jordan (Jim Cummings), a Hollywood agent working for a major agency in Los Angeles. Jordan is engaged to his girlfriend, Caroline (Virginia Newcomb) with the wedding date rapidly approaching when he receives a mysterious letter in a purple envelope that offers an anonymous sexual encounter with no strings attached. The letter proves to be a gateway into the seedy underworld of the film industry.
Like in his previous films, Cummings is once again exploring a deeply toxic man. All of his films have been dark and disturbing explorations of characters with disorganized and troubling traits, but Jordan is easily the most unlikeable character he has portrayed thus far. This is most certainly in the service of furthering the themes and point of the film, I only mention it because when viewing this film, you are with a deeply dysfunctional, narcissistic, and dishonest person for virtually the entire runtime. Cummings once again proves his significant talents in front of the camera with an incredibly demanding role. He is once again brilliant, and I cannot praise his performance in this film enough. There is a scene in the third act of this film that showcases some of the best acting I have seen this entire year, but throughout the film, he brings nuance to this character that is absent from many of its kind.
Where his previous films felt like critiques of law enforcement, and the type of destructive men occupations of power tend to attract, this film is a very sharp critique of the film industry and it struck me how similar the two are portrayed. While Jordan’s occupation is quite different from a police officer (though he impersonates one multiple times throughout the film), the way he utilizes his position above others and more importantly, the way he views others, could not be more similar. A big compliment to the script of this film is that seemingly every choice his character makes seems to serve his worldview that he is the person in control of every situation, and interaction he encounters. A lot of the (dark) comedy comes from how truly pathetic he really is.
I think there will be critiques that the character of Caroline feels underwritten. I would say I had this issue… until I didn’t. And when considering the purpose of the film, this is most certainly the point. In certain ways, I think The Beta Test would make a really interesting double feature with Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy in the sense that both films are an examination of the venomous ways in which men view women internally and how that begins to collide with the external.
Over the past few years, there have been debates on Film Twitter over whether sex in a film is necessary at all, or just gratuitous. I feel The Beta Test, while quite sexually explicit, is an example of how the act of sex can tell you so much about the characters on the screen, and every time it is used in this film, I felt it was to further contextualize the psyche of the characters on screen.
The Beta Test has an abundance of things it wishes to examine throughout its brisk 90-minute runtime, including things I haven’t even touched upon, such as internet culture, incels, the unionization of Hollywood, and the United States Postal Service (in some ways bringing to mind Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49). I’m not sure it says everything as effectively as it could as some feel like an afterthought, but I genuinely admire this film. In many ways, this review has been about the themes that Jim Cummings seems so fascinated in exploring. I think by choosing to explore a very different world than that of law enforcement, he raises the disturbing notion of how universal those themes truly are.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on The Beta Test? Comment down below!
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