"A timid paper-products salesman and a leering hitchhiker hit the road while the news reports are full of a hatchet killer on the loose and a million-dollar thief on the lam. But the plot is secondary to the true appeal of the direct-to-video thriller Nature of the Beast (1995, New Line, R, priced for rental). The film’s main draw is the sight of Lance Henriksen and Eric Roberts in a steel-cage match of an acting duel. While Henriksen carefully reins in his intensity to play the repressed Milquetoast salesman, Roberts is dead-on as a dangerously flamboyant character that would have driven most actors into parody. The film then pays off with a strange, yet logical, conclusion and — like The Usual Suspects — is worth watching twice to see how the actors use the knowledge that the viewers don’t have. B+"
One man is a serial killer, the other a thief who stole a million dollars from a casino. This we learn fairly quickly, but we do not know which is which.
I like this movie a lot. I rated it 7/10 first time out, but I think my understanding of it at that time was wrong. I'd stand by the following:
"The enthusiasm of so many IMDb reviewers for this film is notable. Much of it is because the two leads share almost all the screen time, and these two actors are given a chance to shine as they can and do. They rise to the occasion. Another part is due to the story and its movie-long conflict between the two main characters, a salesman (Lance Henriksen) and a drifting hitchhiker (Eric Roberts).
"This neo-noir story has two dominant characters, neither of which is heroic or sympathetic. But the movie is suspenseful, compact and has some good surprises. The main characters are well-written. This is one of those b-movies that outdoes many big budget movies."
"The film has one extraordinary bit of nihilistic philosophy delivered by Roberts. He constantly confronts and challenges Henricksen with the latter’s hypocrisy. Roberts invites Henriksen to accept him because he sees and accepts Henriksen’s evil. Surface appearances deceive. People display characteristics that do not add up consistently."
The deep theme of the movie, what makes it tick, or what holds all the conflict of the two men together is partly psychological and partly philosophical. The nihilism is central to it, as Roberts taunts the several repressions of Henriksen having to do with sex and drugs. Roberts, a drug addict, also likes to go to the edge of risk, as a gila monster sequence shows, and as he characterizes himself as "crazy". This helps explain how he under-estimates Henriksen.
The plot of this whole movie adds up, including the ending. One element of its logic that's brought out in the script is that Henriksen is a very careful man who doesn't take risks of being caught.
Lance has 254 acting credits. The guy is amazing. I recently watched him in "Hit List" (1989) another third-tier 80s neo-noir that is a reasonably good one (5.6 on IMDb.) Nothing deep but never boring.