Loosely based on the ‘Beast of Jersey’ serial killer who terrorised island residents in the 1960s, writer-director Michael Pearce’s feature debut is an ambitious, deliciously dark psychodrama. Bolstered by two star performances, Beast is equal parts modern gothic fairytale and crime thriller.
Following an eerie prologue with Moll (Jessie Buckley) singing in a church choir, the film opens at her suburban family birthday party, a pastel coloured, almost childish affair, in which Moll barely conceals her frustrations at police officer Clifford’s (Trystan Gravelle) unwanted solicitations. Leading to the party, three shots in sequence signal a fascination with normality as a thin veneer to be chipped away at.
The choral music, followed by the gothic font of the title screen and a shot of Moll pulling an errant hair from her neck work create an uneasy tone, hinting at a lupine animalism lurking just under the skin. Sneaking from the party, Moll goes clubbing before heading to the beach with a man who sexually assaults her. Enter Pascal (Johnny Flynn), a handsome, intimidating interloper who sees the clubber off with a rifle.
The zoom in on his face as Moll looks at him is a rather clichéd technique of framing him as a hero, but here Pearce uses the device to create an uneasy aura around Pascal, one which follows him to the final frames of the film. When Moll does return home, she is scolded by her stern mother (Geraldine James), who is ostensibly worried that Moll was out while a serial killer is prowling the island. Her mother is a clear nod to the evil stepmother trope and one which pays dramatic dividends in the film’s first half, but one which is sadly dropped before the third act rolls around.
If the film has one major problem, it’s that it never fully settles on what it wants to be – at once a modern fairy tale, Bronte-esque gothic melodrama and police procedural, there’s an admirable ambivalence to Beast, both in its treatment of its characters’ psychologies and of the identity of the killer stalking the island. But its fuzzy edges do sometimes create a melange of genres and narrative threads that don’t always knit together fully.
Nevertheless, when Pearce focuses on his film’s gothic elements, Beast comes alive. A brief, night-time scene with an open patio door edges towards outright horror, as do Moll’s surreal, revealing dream sequences. Meanwhile, a shot of huge waves battering Pascal and Moll is the film’s elemental centrepiece.
Grounding this high-flung gothic are Buckley and Flynn astonishing performances, both equally predatory and vulnerable. Moll is easily the more interesting of the two leads, and Buckley walks away with the film, invoking Under the Skin with her subtly animalistic performance. Much like Pascal, Beast is rough around the edges but as a feature debut marks out its director as one of the most intriguing new talents in British filmmaking.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell