Steven Yeun & Ali Wong Are As Magnificent As They’ve Ever Been In Netflix’s Sublime Revenge Saga [SXSW]
Mar 18, 2023
Watching “Beef,” the new series from longtime writer Lee Sung Jin produced by A24, is like observing a trainwreck. Only, instead of it being an accident that seems to come out of nowhere, two different drivers are operating separate locomotives hurtling toward each other. They could slam on the brakes or switch to a different track at any time, yet they are hellbent on destroying the other. Regardless of whether it brings about the annihilation of their own life, they just keep going faster and faster toward a final collision. Yet, as they get closer and closer, there is the feeling that each driver may be more similar to the other than they are different. By the time they realize this, it may be too late to avert the coming catastrophe. It is morbidly entertaining, yes, but also melancholic.
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The drivers in this case, Steven Yeun’s Danny and Ali Wong’s Amy, are not operating trains. Rather, it begins with the two in cars and getting into a near accident in the confines of a parking lot where Danny was backing up, and Amy was driving by. The former stopped at the sound of the latter’s horn, but the crisis is only just beginning. Without ever seeing the other person driving, rage consumes them both. After Amy flips off Danny, he begins pursuing her through traffic. Nearly getting himself and others killed, it ends with her almost hitting him before speeding away. Danny memorizes her license plate, which he then uses to find her and get back at her. When he does so, she goes back after him, he after her, over and over, round and round. As everything continues to escalate, what begins as a dark comedy threatens to become a tragedy. With every needle drop, of which there are many, comes a sense that things are spiraling out of control. In the tenuous life of two people, a series of existential truths are teased out.
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The precise escalations start out silly, even childish, but soon become something more sinister. Danny urinating all over Amy’s bathroom is met with her vandalizing his truck he uses for work. Yet these are the same locations that will become altogether devastating, ratcheting up the tension until a grim, sinking feeling replaces the earned laughs that were had initially. Discussing basically any plot details of this would rob the series of its impact as it is a precisely constructed thriller in addition to being a character study based upon how far each will go. There are moments where it seems like things could somehow stabilize for each, only for it to blow up. With every decision Danny and Amy make not to take the many off-ramps available to them, the more it draws you in. The way it pulls together is messy, in a way it doesn’t always have a handle on, but the reflections brought to life by the two leads make for something mesmerizing. Each has done great work before, but this series sees them really letting loose.
Both play profoundly flawed and broken people, capable of cruelty just as they are compassion. Danny cares deeply for his brother Paul (Young Mazino) though is often harsh to him, believing that this is the only way to help him learn how to navigate a painful world. Yeun is as spectacular as ever in the role, embodying the character’s fragile emotional state in every sudden outburst. Whether it is when Danny mutters creative vulgarities to himself while driving or when he breaks down crying at all he has had to carry, we come to know him through even the small moments. Just seeing him eat fast food or try to strike up a conversation with a bartender is illuminating. Though vastly different in presentation and pacing, it is a character that feels like the one he actually played against in the spectacular 2018 film “Burning.” Danny is struggling to survive, often because of the many forces outside his control. The way Yeun is able to capture this is nothing short of riveting, just as it is ridiculous.
Similarly, Wong brings so much to the character in just the little ways she responds to things. Though far better off than Danny, Amy has only gotten there by destroying so much of what it is she wanted for her life. She wants to spend more time with her daughter June (Remy Holt) and husband George (Joseph Lee) though she still has to sell her company in order to do so. This is the dream, but we see in her every pained expression that this might not be enough to make her happy. As we hear multiple times throughout the series, “there is always something” that can completely strip away their slivers of joy. Even when it seems like Amy is on the verge of a breakthrough, we already know this will get thrown away when we see a particular look creep back across Wong’s face. Though her character doesn’t always say much to express this, her silence makes it all that much worse, as we can see her frustration starting to boil over. When it is released, it can be cathartic while also being relatably demoralizing.
It is the performances of Yeun and Wong that make “Beef” work, even as the story can be a bit scattered the longer it goes on. This reaches a breaking point in the closing episodes that really go off the rails, shifting from being a more grounded series of escalations into a truly chaotic spectacle. Yet even as the story goes off a cliff, being in freefall with Danny and Amy is precisely the point. No matter how much they flounder about, there is something beautiful about seeing their descent. United by a crushing depression and darkness that is also where they are most themselves, there is a lingering hope being played with in whether they will be able to find a way forward without destroying each other. As their revenge schemes become more elaborate, so does the portrait being painted.
This all takes on a more oddly sweet and sentimental tone, each element sneaking up on the story amidst the bleakness that is grabbing hold of it. As the boundaries between Danny and Amy are pulled apart, each growing more closely entangled with the life of the other, it is like a cosmic joke in how it all started out with such a simple, everyday altercation in a parking lot. There is no coming back from this moment, and, for better or worse, seeing the duo emerge from it forever changed makes the series into one as deeply sad as it is increasingly sublime.
For a story so defined by people consumed by their hatred of the other and, as we come to realize, themselves as well, there is just so much to love when all else fades away. Much like the characters themselves, it is a series that is wrapped in an angry outer shell that reveals itself to have a compassionate inside that can either break free or be obliterated. Even as you never know which will end up coming to pass, you’re locked in for the ride. [A-]
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“Beef” debuts on Netflix on April 6.
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