Who hasn’t experienced a bout of road rage? Even Tom Hanks, long regarded as the nicest guy in Hollywood, expressed at a screening of A Man Called Otto that he gets angriest when someone doesn’t have their turn signal on at an intersection. But typically it’s a passing feeling that fades when a driver returns home and is no longer in the thick of it, able to focus instead on other things. Beef presents an altogether different scenario, where two people have an encounter on the road and set out to make the other pay for the grievous crime of crossing them.
What could have been a simple and forgettable parking lot interaction turns into something much more aggressive and long-standing when Danny (Steven Yeun) and Amy (Ali Wong) meet. Neither sees the other driver, but they are so infuriated by the situation that they can think of nothing else. Danny is struggling to keep his flailing construction business afloat and care for his aging parents who were put out of business by his cousin’s illegal scheme, while Amy is trying to find her own purpose and detach from the work that has kept her so busy and away from her husband George (Joseph Lee) and daughter June (Remy Holt). Though they should be focusing on themselves, the appeal of revenge is just too strong for both of them.
Beef starts at one hundred and ten percent and pretty much stays there for the entirety of its run. The inciting incident is intense and full of aggression, and things only escalate from there. Urinating on Amy’s floor while pretending to be there to advise her on safety issues with her home is one of Danny’s early moves, while Amy hits back by painting “I Am Poor” on the side of his car. Their tactics are vicious and cruel, and each grandstands to attempt to intimidate the other, photographing security systems and alleging that they are dangerous and to be feared.
Liking Danny and Amy isn’t something that should be possible given the nature of their characters, but Yeun and Wong infuse them with plenty of depth. It’s most fun to see them when they’re getting excited by the scope of what they can do to one-up their eternal opponent, and both actors are terrific. Yeun, a veteran of The Walking Dead and an Oscar nominee for Minari, makes Danny’s journey towards spirituality captivating, carefully layering it with selfishness that shines through even as he makes a legitimate connection. Wong, an established stand-up comedienne, is remarkably skilled at dialing up her character’s tolerance for nonsense as she plays the part she knows she must to achieve her true aims.
Yeun and Wong are not alone in a superb ensemble that smartly casts a spotlight on its supporting players. Danny has a complicated relationship with his younger brother Paul (Young Mazino), who has his own dreams and opens up when others begin to take him more seriously than his family ever has. George feigns support but chooses to stand by ideals that aren’t shared by his wife, and his efforts to cover up his own shortcomings are most interesting for the reactions they elicit in Amy. Maria Bello, Ashley Park, and David Choe also lend consistent support as occasionally major players in the lives of these two protagonists.
Beef, which made its world premiere at SXSW in March, comes from A24, in good company in terms of both quality and tone with past projects like Mo, Ramy, and Mr. Corman. Its title gets to the heart of what it’s all about: the way in which people can become obsessed with a feud, moving past what actually happened and instead focusing on the hate that can come from it. It’s a remarkably different but equally riveting companion piece to the Oscar-nominated Lebanese film The Insult, crackling with fury and social commentary to make it one of the most watchable shows of the year.
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All ten episodes of season one of Beef premiere Thursday, April 6th on Netflix.