T wenty-six-year-old Moll (Jessie Buckley) is a woman that takes a serious interest in things; she knows what appeals to her. Her interests seem to primarily lie in Jersey’s wild landscapes and the animals that populate that island hometown of hers. A special delight is reserved for whales. “They always seem to be smiling,” she says in Beast’s opening voiceover. Until they’re captured, that is. A captive whale will bash their teeth against glass until the water fills with their blood, we’re told.
Much like those bloodied whales, Moll seems to be trapped in a life she did not choose for herself. A deeply unhappy woman, most all of Moll’s time belongs to everyone but herself. She works a thankless job as a Jersey tour guide, which hardly seems to engage her. When she’s not at work, Moll’s at choir practice with her mother Hilary (Geraldine James), the choir’s director, who feels Moll isn’t “giving her enough”. When she’s not at choir practice with her mother, she’s tending to her father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, a situation Moll’s mother uses to guilt and manipulate her daughter.
Even at her own birthday party, Moll’s mother finds a way to marginalize and belittle her. The sorry affair sends Moll running to the local nightclub where she dances until morning, which culminates in her meeting Pascal (a pitch-perfect Johnny Flynn), a handsome hunter-gather type living off the land. There is an earthy sensuality pulsating between the two, an immediate chemistry which may explain why Moll turns a blind eye to some of some of Pascal’s less attractive characteristics, including a police record and more than his fair share of concerning behaviors (instinctively aggressive, violent outbursts). But Moll isn’t so innocent either. In fact, Moll’s family seem to think she’s the real danger here. “Moll’s a wild one,” her sister warns Pascal over dinner, alluding to her psychologically troubled past.
And then there’s the matter of the Jersey serial killer. Someone’s been murdering the island’s young girls and filing their mouths with soil. Pascal quickly finds himself to be the Jersey’s police’s primary suspect. All the while, Moll’s own moral character and her motivations for being with Pascal become increasingly difficult to read.
In giving you a plot summary, as these reviews often require, I’m afraid that Beast comes off as nothing more than a genre film. That is not at all the case. The most impressive aspect of Michael Pearce’s debut feature walks a fine line between low- and high-filmmaking styles, rubbing up against those razor-sharp “genre” films of the 1970s, such as Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man. The structures of gothic melodrama weigh heavily on these characters, and maybe a little too heavily; you wouldn’t be wrong to call Beast over-engineered. But it’s difficult to fault a first-time director for being overly ambitious, especially when there’s always something more subtle, something sinister operating underneath the surface.
More often than not, Pearce succeeds in pulling off his film’s tricky balancing act. But in those few moments that Pearce’s script stumbles, Beast maintains its momentum due to a tremendous central performance from a relentless Jessie Buckley, utterly convincing in her role. Sensitively crafted, if not a slightly over-indulged, Beast proves to be a nasty little number that takes risks. It refuses to be tamed by audience expectations and it’s all the better for it. Watch out, this one’s bites. | Cait Lore