On the isle of Jersey, a troubled young woman named Moll (Jessie Buckley – a revelation) emotionally enslaved by her manipulative and unforgiving family (headed by her posh, cruel, ice-queen of a mother played perfectly by Geraldine James) has a chance encounter with a guy from the wrong side of the sand dunes named Pascal (Johnny Flynn) that leads to a dangerous romance amidst the frenzied summer of a serial killer on the loose in Michael Pearce’s electrifying and disturbing directorial debut, Beast.
Beast is a classic sleeper film, having come presumably out of nowhere, and confounds all expectations of its tried and true “doomed romance” genre, here presented through the lenses of neo-noir and modern gothic. The less you know about the film going in the better. The complex psychological disturbances it displays (and transmitted exceptionally well by the cast, and most of all, by Buckley) need to be wrestled with, unpacked…not unlike the work one would do in therapy to better understand their past trauma and current motivations. For Moll, who is introduced to us through her own voice-over about the tragic fates of killer whales isolated in captivity (a chilling metaphor for what is about to unfold), being ostracized is clearly a trigger, but what the film accomplishes so brilliantly is confusion in the mind of the viewer. What are the true motives behind Moll and Pascal’s behavior? They compel us to sympathize with them even as we watch them careen into emotional and criminal mind-fields.
There are things that Pearce makes stick with a nuanced style that mirrors the psychological depths his story plumbs. The tempestuous Jersey shores (the cliffs, the surf) are filmed in a haunting sundrenched dreaminess, while the interiors of the environment (the woods, the homes) are bathed in midnight hues, while discordant musical tones reach fevered pitches as his camera moves throughout the dichotomous and treacherous terrain. Dream sequences are expertly woven into the narrative, as viewers are given first-person intimacy with the tortured inner workings of our heroine (or anti-heroine?).
The film’s dynamite dénouement furthers the turmoil and we marvel not only about who or how…buy also why…and now what? Intriguingly as I continue to wrestle with Beast, the scene that affected me most was not the chilling violence of the climax, but instead the subdued scene about thirty minutes earlier when Moll is brought in for questioning after Pascal becomes a suspect in the most recent murder of a young girl. Here Moll goes tete-a-tete with a detective from the mainland who is as manipulative, harsh and unforgiving as her mother. But then the lights suddenly go out in a power surge, and for a brief moment the detective’s eyes adjusting to the newfound darkness startlingly appear like those of a big cat stalking its prey at night. The sheer terror is only there for a split second, but the impact of her archetype on someone like Moll is part of a zig-zagging line of cyclical cause and effect.
From whence did this beast spring?
More unsettling yet…can this beast ever be tamed?
Pierce and Buckley offer no easy answers.
Written by David H. Schleicher