After an extremely awkward moment at her birthday party, family pariah Moll (Jessie Buckley: War & Peace series, Taboo series) bolts for her house. Eager to forget her family’s fake sentiment, Moll grabs a drink but cracks a glass. Collecting the pieces in her hand, she pauses, then squeezes.
Pain is an unwitting escape in Michael Pearce’s suffocating Beast. In theaters Friday, May 11, 2018 via Roadside Attractions and 30West, Pearce’s debut is a grim look at the dark side of self-discovery.
Soon after this birthday episode, Moll leaves to drink and dance all night and she ends up meeting the charismatic and mysterious Pascal (Johnny Flynn: Clouds of Sils Maria 2014, Brotherhood series); he is gruff and grungy but oddly composed despite his exterior. There is an immediate connection between the two, much to the chagrin of Moll’s domineering mother Hilary (Geraldine James: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 2011, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story 2016). Hilary has kept a tight leash on her daughter since Moll was involved in a violent school incident as a teen.
Then, beyond the crushing tension of Moll’s family life, there is another more horrific matter at hand: a brutal serial killer is stalking the young women of the secluded island community Moll and her family call home. Pascal, a lawbreaker with a spotty past, is a suspect. This is where the mystery at the heart of Beast flourishes: though the is-he-or-isn’t-he question is there throughout, the matter of Pascal possibly being the killer is secondary to the story of Moll’s emergence as an individual.
Simply put, Jessie Buckley’s performance as Moll is staggering. As Moll struggles to find herself, she is twisted in every direction; frustrated and boiling anger at the stunted life her family, especially her mother, has forced upon her. She’s wild, free and passionate in her growing relationship with Pascal, despite the dark side to their union – the disgust, disbelief and horrified shock that the man she loves may be a deranged killer.
Beast is as pure a character study as there is. Characters that feel real populate this story, and no one’s performance feels less than authentic; Moll and Pascal have many moments of real connection, which only adds to the gut-churning nature of the mystery. Does Moll care if Pascal is a rapist-killer? It’s the central horrifying question Beast asks, though there are many more.
Her relationship with Pascal frees her from her family-enforced shackles. Moll works as a tour guide when not bearing the brunt of her family’s disdain and disapproval. In other words, when she is not wincing from her mother’s venom, she is constantly retreading the physical terrain of a world she has never been able to leave. Her past haunts her at all times because her present never changes.
This is where Beast becomes even more fascinating of a psychological study. Michael Pearce smartly does not side with Moll; in fact, he really does not side with anyone in the film. The island’s ugly side is apparent for all to see. Moll herself is not very sympathetic, and she deserves punishment for what she did in her past – but to what extent? Beast observes where Moll chooses to take her life, leaving any conclusion up to the viewer. It is captivating and harrowing, though it is certainly not pretty, and it becomes clear that just who the “beast” is on this island is not so clear at all.
Michael Pearce’s direction is top notch. In a great choice, the horrors tormenting the tiny island of Jersey happen off-screen. A reoccurring theme in Beast is how underlying tension cracks and causes irrational turmoil yet it happens. Here, Jim Williams follows up his outstanding work on 2016’s Raw with an ambient score evocative of the boiling core of this shut-in world and the people who inhabit it.
Benjamin Kracun’s matter-of-fact cinematography also underscores Beast‘s ugly reality. Besides two disorienting nightmare sequences (which also feel real until they don’t), there’s little to no stylization; this story just is. By holding back, Kracun and Pearce reveal so much more. The killer’s unspeakable crimes haunt the tiny community – living in the dreams and nightmares of everyone there and the audience – and the sense of overwhelming dread throughout the film, coupled with the torrid romance, should inspire mixed feelings. This is definitely Pearce’s intent: he is a director to keep an eye on.
If there is one complaint to be made about Beast, it would be on the ending. While understandable, it may be too clear of an answer for the questions the film poses about Moll’s harsh, vulnerable and morally-complex journey. That being said, the film is otherwise a stunning debut for Michael Pearce and, again, Jessie Buckley’s performance is incredible. Beast is a brutally awkward, slow burn of a Psychological Thriller, and these factors alone make it a must watch. For this, CrypticRock gives Beast 4.5 out of 5 stars.