The opening few minutes of “Three Headed Beast” begin like most films, with music accompanying two figures as they set up a basic dramatic circumstance. Two men — one with a bushy red beard and baseball hat, the other dark-haired and limber — are moving a mattress into an empty apartment. Huffing and puffing, they plunk the mattress hastily on the floor before pulling each other down into an erotically charged tumble. Almost imperceptibly, our brains begin to piece together a story from the information we’ve been given: They appear to be a couple in their lustful honeymoon phase moving in together for the first time. As the moving montage progresses, with one snapping photographs while the other does all the work before heading out the door with a perfunctory kiss and a houseplant handoff, our perception of their relationship begins to shift.
Like the relationships it portrays, “Three Headed Beast” upends traditional storytelling conventions. After these wordless introductory scenes, which include a woman embracing her lover goodbye and running home, one might expect some dialogue to puncture the silence, but it never comes. Instead, the drama unfolds like a simple animation might, without language to offer any explanations; filmmakers Fernando Andrés and Tyler Rugh rely on tight editing and inventive camera work to guide the viewer’s eye, using every visual tool at their disposal to craft a compelling narrative. It’s an impressive feat, especially for both filmmakers’ first feature (Andrés also shot and edited the film), one that rises to the challenge of budgetary limitations to invent something undeniably new and unique.
The redhead is Peter (Jacob Schatz), a landscaper who prefers beer to wine and carries a jug of water with him wherever he goes. He lives in a tidy and cozily designed space with Nina (Dani Hurtado), a personal trainer and obsessive podcast listener. We learn their vocations in split screen, as they go about their busy work days in a simple montage. Both bustling frames continue on either side of a third, where Alex (Cody Shook), the guy from the beginning, sleeps peacefully between them, serving as a cheeky metaphor. Alex wakes up halfway through the other couple’s workday, and when they’re making dinner at home he is out dancing at a club. When they kiss goodnight and turn the lights out, he’s bedding a guy in his new place.
Though it sounds unusual, “Three Headed Beast” doesn’t shy away from the restrictions of its inventive scenario. While the split screen goes on longer than in might in a conventional film, the film doesn’t rely too much on gimmicks. We see a few text messages here and there that serve to establish basic names and the recency of Alex and Peter’s connection. Much of the film is scored by Ryan Faber’s impressionistic compositions, which can turn from jaunty to wistful on a dime. But there are musical reprieves, where silence descends and the starkness of the wordless story is allowed to hang in the air. The couple’s routine is established over a series of dinner scenes, which are tranquil and comfortable at first; then punctuated by friends expecting a baby; and eventually sad and laden.
Just when the film begins to settle into a quiet rhythm, however, the mute figures suddenly begin to speak when they’re all in the same place for the first time. As soon as they start talking, however, you wish they’d stop. The personas, established gently by the actors’ careful movements and steady gazes, are suddenly dampened by stilted conversation and gruff deliveries. It works for the scene, dialing up the awkwardness of meeting your lover’s lover for the first time, but something is lost when the bubble bursts. When a fourth character also speaks, only to tell Nina she doesn’t talk much, one can feel logic creeping in uninvited.
Still, “Three Headed Beast” uses its conceit to explore a fascinating subject matter that can easily sound trite when put into words. Terms like open marriage, polyamory, and non-monogamy are a mouthful, each carrying their own baggage and minute differences no one has the time to decode. By stripping the idea to its essence — that romantic and sexual connections can and do exist between more than two people concurrently — “Three Headed Beast” unburdens the complex subject matter from the judgement of the outside world. After all, isn’t that what free love is all about?
“Three Headed Beast” premiered in competition at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.