The British psychosexual thriller ‘Beast’ opens with a deadpan voiceover reminiscent of the recent ‘Thoroughbreds’, director Cory Finley’s tale of a horse-obsessed and possibly murderous teenage oddball. Here, a young woman rhapsodizes about her kinship with killer whales because “they always seem to be smiling.”
Writer/director Michael Pearce’s debut film follows Moll Huntford (Jessie Buckley, TV’s ‘Taboo’), a fragile 27-year-old woman living in an oppressive upper-class home, ruled by a controlling mother, Hillary (a great Geraldine James, ’45 Years’, ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’). The pale, red-headed Moll gradually begins to assert her independence, extricating herself from her dysfunctional family with the help of Pascal (Johnny Flynn, ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’), a handsome but rough-living outsider.
She likes his smell and, as in Terence Malick’s ‘Badlands’, Pascal unlocks a wildness in her that she has evidently long repressed. Moll’s monotonous life transitions from caring for her dad with Alzheimer’s, babysitting her niece and a dull job as a tour bus guide, to gnarly sex with her unsuitable boyfriend in dewy grass at midnight, getting “shitfaced” down at the pub, and a lot of tut-tutting from the conservative community.
Moll is closely monitored after an unspecified mental breakdown in her past and Pascal offers hope for a newly emancipated life... that is, until a slew of macabre murders spreads paranoia throughout the tightly-knit community on the Channel Island of Jersey (a location last referenced in ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’). Clifford (Trystan Gravelle), a dorky local cop who carries a torch for Moll, warns her that Pascal is the primary suspect.
It’s a shame that ‘Beast’ can’t maintain its momentum, because it features mesmerising, sinuous performances by Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn.
‘Beast’ was inspired in part by Edward Paisnel, the so-called “Beast of Jersey” who carried out a string of sex attacks on the island between 1960 and 1971. Unfortunately, once the film’s attention shifts from Moll and Pascal’s nascent romance to focus on the usual whodunit mechanics, ‘Beast’ starts to fall into some familiar patterns and feels like a typical episode of Jimmy McGovern’s (much imitated) BBC crime series ‘Cracker’ from the early '90s. Goofy rookie cops, tough veteran detectives, unbalanced outsiders whose romantic relationship escalates their craziness... the works. The motivations of the characters are also left ambiguous to the point of mild confusion by the film’s epilogue.
It’s a shame that ‘Beast’ can’t maintain its momentum, because it features mesmerising, sinuous performances by Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn. Cinematographer Benjamin Kracun’s masterful use of bold colour, light and dark, formally composed and handheld shots, emphasises environmental contrasts and emotionally fraught mental states. Jim Williams’ emphatic score is supremely unnerving. The Channel Island setting also allows the film to tap into some uniquely British pastoral horror vibes, a la ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ and ‘The Wicker Man’.
‘Beast’ is a tense, visceral character study that explores the feral sexuality and paranoia that can erupt in repressive environments.