Beast wasn’t in my original TIFF plans. Extremely limited press screenings forced me to blow up my schedule twice, but I saw the main things I wanted. Beast was a pick-up, from promising new filmmaker Michael Pearce. In the film, a woman is forced to defend her lover when he falls under suspicion for a series of brutal murders. While the film’s twists yank it a tad too far from the realm of believability, it’s a tense thriller and a quality debut.
Moll (Jessie Buckley) is trapped under the thumb of her oppressive family, living at home on the island of Jersey. (Jersey is a UK island tucked in the English Channel, rather close to France.) She silently seethes under the watchful eye of her mother Hilary (a particularly nasty Geraldine James). It seems strange that this woman in her mid-twenties is still at home, but gradually we learn she’s carrying the blame for an outburst of extraordinary violence when she was a teenager.
Moll’s almost a bystander at her own birthday party, as her sister Polly announces she’s pregnant with twins. Insult is added to injury as her mother sends Moll to fetch champagne to celebrate Polly’s news. Having had quite enough of the party, Moll takes off and goes clubbing. She garners the attentions of an insistent lad, and together they skip out of the club to wander the beaches in the twilight before dawn. With news of another girl missing after a series of grisly murders, this seems a poor choice on Moll’s part. As the chap hits on her, repeatedly ignoring Moll’s insistence she’d rather go home, things look like they’re about to turn badly.
Up turns a scruffy wanderer bearing a rifle, who scares off the loutish boy. Moll is instantly intrigued by her unkempt saviour. Pascal (Johnny Flynn) is an outsider, content to hunt in the woods and live in his small ancestral home. The two strike up an uncertain relationship, fuel poured onto their tentative fire by the clear distaste Moll’s family has for this rough man.
Their passion takes on an uncomfortable edge, as Moll learns Pascal’s under investigation for the murders. She’s forced to defend him from the community and her family, even as her own suspicions flicker under the surface. Moreover, Pascal has awakened Moll’s own streak of darkness, long buried after her angry teens. Is she right to protect Pascal? Or is Moll becoming her own worst enemy as she gives in to dark impulses?
Jessie Buckley deftly evokes Moll’s mercurial emotions and her tenuous hold on herself. It’s a striking performance, and we’re bound to see more of her. Johnny Flynn captures the awkward belligerence of Pascal’s downtrodden swagger, but the movie’s shifts make his role an uncertain one. There’s probably one twist too many as the film builds to its final confrontation, as the director Pearce almost pulls off his magic trick, but not quite.
Where Beast most succeeds is in its long stretches of character study, and Pearce’s evocative eye for the landscapes where he originally grew up. Pearce, together with cinematographer Benjamin Kracun, capture some beautiful, telling sequences. While the story overreaches, it’s a finely detailed thriller where really the beasts are many, from paranoid neighbours to callous family to the people we let under our closest guard. The nuances of Moll’s internal journey are Beast‘s best bits, proving that under the harsh weight of oppression, the beast that’s hardest to corral is the beast inside.
Beast is playing the festival circuit, headed next to London. Expect it to roam closer to home next year.