More and more these days we are seeing really strong and confident debuts from young filmmakers and Michael Pearce’s BEAST is now another that can proudly sit on that list. The film’s synopsis sounds objectively generic at first glance however through some very interesting character work, two truly brilliant central performances and a clever and layered tone this feature really manages to stand out amongst the crowd.
Moll (Jessie Buckley), a young woman living in Jersey with her oppressive family, is dealing with a troubled past and a conflicted present when she meets the dangerous and alluring Pascal Renouf (Johnny Flynn) and the pair spark off a passionate and destructive relationship during the backdrop of a series of brutal kidnappings and murders which Pascal is under suspicion of.
Whilst the setup may sound vaguely like a more mature episode of Midsummer Murders it is actually far from it. There is a very carefully crafted drama here that slowly builds and develops into a tense and menacing psychological thriller interspersed with brutal elements of horror but all the while wrapped up in a kind of mythical ‘fairy tale’ like whimsy. It is not an easy film to watch but it was an extremely rewarding one for myself.
Whilst Michael Pearce really does deserve a lot of praise for how this feature turned out it simply would not have been possible without the incredible work of the two leads. Jessie Buckley in particular is a force of nature in what will inevitably be a star-making performance! Moll is such a complex character to portray but Buckley does it with vulnerability, intelligence, fear, shyness, confidence and strength. The character of Moll is in every single scene of the film and she is our portal into this world. We get to see a woman so filled with guilt and shame and worry and isolation being transformed into someone so much more powerful but at what cost?
Johnny Flynn is not somebody I had come across before but his ability here to quite effortlessly flit between ominous menace to boyish playfulness to ‘leading man’ charm and charisma to exponential rage is quite astonishing. The filmmakers make his involvement with the police investigation ambiguous every step of the way and that gives Flynn free reign to take us any way with this character at any time. It’s a brilliant role and it is handled perfectly.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how effective the Jersey setting is in helping to create such an eerie and memorable look and feel to the film too. The beaches, the cliffs, the woods, the surf and the trenches all play very pivotal parts in framing this twisted story and it seems quite remarkable that this setting hasn’t been used that much in cinema so far. Much like Francis Lee’s brilliant love story “God’s Own Country” from last year used Yorkshire to stunning effect to accentuate the central themes of the film, so does the biggest of the Channel Islands here. It is beautiful one minute and menacing the next and although the natural beauty really does frame itself it definitely plays a part in portraying the conflicted emotions that Moll goes through over the course of the narrative.
I will finish by briefly bringing it back to the ‘fairy tale’ feel I mentioned earlier. The film’s title simply being BEAST is almost certainly purposefully reminiscent of Disney’s own “Beauty and the Beast” and it is within this comparison that I find the film most interesting. Who is the Beast in this tale? Is it Pascal with his dirty appearance and demeanour and ‘devil may care’ attitude juxtaposed with the suspicion against his character? Is it Moll who has been told her whole life she is a “wild one” that needs to be tamed and who never feels accepted in any situation she finds herself in? Is it the oppression and abuse Moll gets from seemingly every person of authority or influence around her, slowly but agonisingly beating her down and preventing her from blossoming? Or is it love itself? Something so strong yet potentially so destructive that it can build people up or tear them apart in equal measure. The film leaves these answers up to you and it’s within that ambiguity that I find my real passion for this film lies. A dark, tense and surprising psychological thriller that is far more than just another ‘serial killer’ story. A thorough recommend from me!
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