Watching “beefNew series from longtime author lee sung jin produced by A24 Looks like a trainwreck. Only, instead of it being a crash that seemed to come out of nowhere, it’s two different drivers driving different engines hurtling towards each other. They can brake or switch to a different track at any time, yet they are bent on destroying the other. Even if it leads to the destruction of their own lives, they keep moving faster and faster towards the final confrontation. Yet, as they get closer and closer, it feels as though each driver may be as similar to the other as they are different. By the time they realize this, it may be too late to avert the coming catastrophe. It’s morbidly amusing, yes, but also sad.
Read more: SXSW 2023 preview: 25 must-see film and TV projects
In this case the drivers steven yeun Danny and Ali Wong Amy is not operating the 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. The first stopped at the sound of the latter’s horn, but the trouble had just begun. Anger consumes them both without even seeing the other driving. After Amy walks away from Danny, he begins following her through traffic. Nearly getting himself and the others killed, it ends with him nearly killing her before speeding away. Danny remembers her license plate, which he uses to find and retrieve it from her. When he does, she follows him, he follows her, again and again, in circles. What starts off as a dark comedy turns into a tragedy as things escalate. With every drop of the needle, of which there are many, comes a feeling that things are spiraling out of control. In the vulnerable lives of two people, a series of existential truths are waged.
READ MORE: ‘Beef’ Trailer: Steven Yeun and Ali Wong Are Two Men Out for Revenge in Netflix’s New Series
The precise escalation seems silly, even childish, but soon turns into something much more sinister. Danny, who pees all over Amy’s bathroom, is met with vandalizing her truck that he uses for work. Yet these are the same places that would turn outright disastrous, raising the tension until a grim, sinking feeling replaced the earned laughs that initially ensued. Basically discussing any of its plot details would throw off its chain of effect as this is a precisely constructed thriller apart from being a character study based on how far each will go. There are moments where it seems like things might somehow be stable for each, only to have it blow up. With every decision Danny and Amy make there aren’t many off-ramps available to them, the more it pulls you in. There is something mesmerizing brought to life by the two leads. Each has done a great job before, but this series sees them really let loose.
Both play deeply flawed and broken people, just as capable of cruelty as compassion. Danny cares a lot for his brother Paul (young mazino) though often harsh to her, believing that this is the only way to help her learn how to navigate a painful world. Yoon is brilliant as ever in the role, epitomizing the character’s delicate emotional state in every sudden outburst. Whether it’s when Danny mumbles creative obscenities to himself while driving or when he breaks down crying, we get to know him through the little moments. Just watching him eat fast food or try to strike up a conversation with the bartender is illuminating. Though very different in presentation and pacing, this is a character that feels like it was actually played against from the brilliant 2018 film “On fire.” Danny is struggling to survive, often due to a number of forces outside his control. The way Yoon is able to capture it is as endearing as it is ridiculous.
Likewise, Wong brings so much to the character in how he reacts to things. Although far better than Danny, Amy has gotten there by destroying everything she ever wanted in life. She wants to spend more time with her daughter June (remy holt) and husband George (Joseph Lee) though he would still have to sell his company to do so. It is dreamy, but we see in his every pained expression that perhaps it is not enough to make him happy. As we hear several times throughout the series, “there’s always something” that can completely take away their jolts of joy. Even when it seems that Amy is on the verge of a breakthrough, we already know it will be far from over when there’s a special look on Wong’s face. Although her character doesn’t always say much to express it, her silence makes it worse, as we can see that her frustration is starting to boil over. When released, it can be relatively depressing as well as laxative.
It’s Yun and Wong’s performances that make the “beef” work, even as the story becomes scattered the longer it goes on. It reaches a breaking point in the finale episode that really derails, shifting from being a more grounded series of escalations into a genuinely chaotic spectacle. Yet as the story goes off the cliff, it’s the right thing to be in freefall with Danny and Amy. It doesn’t matter how much they run around, there is something beautiful in watching their offspring. Combined with a crushing depression and the darkness where they are most themselves, there is a lingering anticipation of whether or not they will be able to move forward without destroying each other. As his plans for vengeance become more elaborate, so does the picture being painted.
It all takes on a more strangely melodramatic and sentimental tone, each element sneaking up on the story amid the silliness that’s holding it back. As the boundaries between Danny and Amy separate, each more closely intertwined with the other’s life, it’s like a cosmic joke about how it all started in a parking lot with such a simple, Began with an everyday brawl. There’s no coming back from this moment, and, for better or worse, watching the pair change forever makes this series as deeply sad as it is increasingly sublime.
For a story that’s defined by people being consumed by their hatred of the other and, as we feel, ourselves, there’s a lot to love when all else fades away. Like the characters themselves, this is a series wrapped in an angry outer shell that reveals itself as a kindred spirit that can either be liberating or scorned. As you never know which will end, you are off for the ride. [A-]
Follow along for all our reviews and coverage of the 2023 SXSW Film & Television Festival.