Written & Directed by Michael Pearce
Everything Beast is predicated on could become cliche so quickly in the hands of a lazy filmmaker. A serial killer is targeting teenage girls on the island of Jersey, England. The movie could be an investigative procedural, but it isn’t. There’s a dark romance between protagonist Moll and local poacher Pascal that could be something Twilight adjacent, but the director refuses to go there, though he will hint at it. What Beast ultimately reveals itself as is a dark psychological profile about a young woman coming into her own, shaking off the repressive elements of her middle-class upbringing and her label as a “damaged woman.”
Moll is in her late 20s but still nervously bound to her childhood home where her mother dictates the behaviors of her adult daughter. Early on, we learn that Moll attacked a classmate in high school and became a homebound student as a result. Since then she’s been sheltered and controlled by her mother and looked down upon by her more successful siblings. After her sister’s engagement overshadows Moll’s birthday, she makes a run for it and ends up saved from a date rape encounter by Pascal. The two are an awkward, volatile pair, and their relationship will create no end of problems.
This isn’t an entirely original story and will remind viewers of Terence Malick’s Badlands or any number of Bonnie and Clyde inspired tales. The question of crime lingers through every scene though, and it isn’t until the third act that we have it confirmed either way if Moll and Pascal are connected in any way to the murders.
The murders linger in the background, something that is going on but doesn’t directly affect Moll and Pascal’s lives at the outset. It’s more important to build the history of our protagonist, putting her in situations of varying intensity and discomfort to see how she either succumbs or fights her way out. Moll begins having nightmares about the murdered girls that involve her rotating into the position of the victim and the attacker, slowly creating questions about her connection to these peripheral crimes. Eventually, Pascal comes under suspicion and Moll lies to create an alibi for her lover.
Jessi Buckley as Moll is the most potent element of the film, so good that she inadvertently shows how average an actor her co-star is. She plays her emotions at the surface but never comes across as whiny or shallow. Moll is an intense person who has been stunted emotionally because of her mother; now a grown adult boiling with the frustration of adolescence. When Pascal reveals some dark truths about himself, they don’t hit with the pathos they should mainly because Moll is a more compelling character.
There are some genuinely despairing moments, highlighting how a woman like Moll, coping with social-emotional issues can be used and beaten up by a society that just wants her to conform. She is pursued romantically by a local police officer whom Moll shuns when she ends with Pascal. Later, she needs this man’s help, and when she goes to him, he tosses her out on the street knowing her pleas are real and she is potentially going to be harmed. It’s a harsh moment and a significant turning point for Moll to come to the realization that she is by herself. The night that follows is transformative, including a metaphorical and literal self-burial. Moll emerges in the daylight with a plan to bring all this madness to an end. There are weak points in the film, but the lead performance makes Beast a film to seek out.
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