The old English font used for Beast’s onscreen title suggests classic Gothic/fairy tales, specifically of the Beauty and the… variety. It’s the first of many ways that British writer/director Michael Pearce sets up expectations that he proceeds to inexorably and unerringly upset over the course of his very impressive feature debut.
Beast is also sure to raise the stock of its two leads, Jessie Buckley (previously seen in the BBC’s War and Peace and part of the ensemble of next year’s The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle) and musician-turned-actor Johnny Flynn (who played the young Albert Einstein in Genius). Buckley has features that can suggest a teenager at one moment and a grown woman the next, which is perfect for Moll Huntford, a 27-year-old whose life has been arrested at adolescence. She still lives at home (on Jersey, one of the Channel Islands off the British coast), under the thumb of her condescending control freak of a mother, Hilary (Geraldine James), who offers only a calm rationalization when Moll’s sister Polly (Shannon Tarbet) hijacks Moll’s birthday party at the film’s beginning. Fleeing the gathering, she spends what is clearly a rare night out on her own, which leads her to meet local outsider and poacher Pascal (Johnny Flynn). Their first encounter is the opposite of a meet-cute, but there’s a fast attraction between the two, and Moll, intrigued by this man who seems to live by no rules, lets him into her sheltered life, as he comes to offer the possibility of breaking out of it.
Her family, Hilary in particular, unsurprisingly responds to this relationship with varyingly expressed levels of disapproval, heightened by current events on the island. A serial killer has been kidnapping, sexually assaulting and murdering young girls, and outsider Pascal comes under suspicion by both the Huntfords and the community in general. Disapproval, of course, has a way of pushing people into the arms of those they should perhaps be avoiding, yet Pearce and Buckley establish Moll’s situation and her frustration with it so well, and Flynn projects sufficient rough-hewn charm from within Pascal’s ambiguous nature, that we quickly understand why Moll falls for him even though she shouldn’t.
So far, this sounds like another story of an innocent tempted by a big bad wolf, but Beast is far from that simple. Pearce does tease us with the is-he-or-isn’t-he question—and plays fair in doing so—and builds a sense of growing unease as Moll becomes more deeply involved with Pascal. Yet as the film goes on, the drama and tension begin to hinge as much on what we learn about her as it does on Pascal’s guilt or innocence. While keeping us uncertain of his culpability in the crimes, Pearce reveals unexpected layers of both Moll’s past and her psyche that take Beast into dramatically rich and truly unsettling areas.
That the movie works as an uncompromising character study, a portrait of a small population in thrall to suspicion and a psychological horror story all at once is a credit to Pearce and his two leads, whose chemistry simmers from the start and comes to a boil as their true selves slowly creep to the surface. Buckley in particular is a revelation, eschewing easy plays for sympathy in Beast’s early scenes while keeping us intrigued with her as she descends into the dark side. Flynn matches her beat for beat, projecting a sense of danger that’s easy for a girl like Moll to respond to as bad-boy allure.
Pearce, who grew up in Jersey and loosely based Beast’s story on true events there, evokes a very specific sense of place, backing Benjamin Kračun’s exquisite photography with flavorful, sometimes dread-inducing scoring by Jim Williams and sound design/additional music by Gunnar Óskarsson. There is indeed beauty to be found on the island, but Pearce’s sharply made point is that beastliness can lurk in unexpected places.
Please enjoy the following exclusive clip from Michael Pearce's Beast.