UK Release Date: 20th August 2018
Runtime: 104 minutes
Director: Michael Pearce
Writer: Michael Pearce
Starring: Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn, Geraldine James, Trystan Gravelle
Synopsis: A prim and proper young girl meets a mysterious outsider and forms a relationship with him, just as he becomes the key suspect in a killing spree.
There’s a running thread throughout Beast – writer-director Michael Pearce‘s searing debut feature – in which characters remark on each other’s smell, as if they’re animals navigating the world through their noses and instincts. The title packs an enormous amount of meaning into a single word and could refer to just about any of the characters, who all spend the film grappling with their animal urges and edges. Pearce finds great resonance in the plucking of a single, errant hair from a woman’s neck or the bulging of a vein, as if it’s threatening to burst through the flesh of a character’s shuddering arm.
On a second viewing, it’s this resonance that burns through the darkly romantic trappings of the plot. Pearce was inspired by the tale from his own childhood of the real-life ‘Beast of Jersey’, crafting a tale of coming-of-age romance set against the backdrop of a brutal killing spree. His story follows Moll (Jessie Buckley), who finds a way to escape the clutches of her control freak mother (Geraldine James) when she meets rugged outsider Pascal (Johnny Flynn) and they begin a hot and heavy relationship, full of rabbit poaching and woodland sexual encounters – with each eliciting their own ragged, primal reaction. She is forced to question her new life when Pascal, who has a shady past, becomes the prime suspect in the aforementioned spate of grisly murders.
Much of the movie is about contrast. We first meet Buckley’s Moll as she sings in a church choir, dressed all in pristine white. It soon becomes clear, however, that there’s more to Moll than her prim and proper world and that a relationship with Pascal might not be her only flirtation with something rougher than her family’s shiny surfaces and glowing white furniture. Buckley is terrific in this incredibly ambiguous role, communicating a great deal of character with her differing facial expressions and body language, before ultimately exploding in a primal scream that is at once animal and strikingly human. Flynn, meanwhile, is as inscrutable as Buckley is overt, finding a stream of sinister threat lurking beneath his charmingly earthy exterior.
Pearce delights in wrong-footing his audience with the ways in which the characters interact. The central relationship is tumultuous and plagued by narrative revelations and there’s a constant push and pull between the world in which Moll believes she should exist and the one to which she is tempted by her feelings for Pascal. Pearce’s storytelling is slippery and nimble, but always driven by character rather than narrative, allowing the focus to fall on the tremendous performances. Jim Williams’s atmospheric score, meanwhile, allows the genre to career wildly and unpredictably from romantic drama to crime thriller, via some chilling psychological horror.
For a feature debut, Beast is hugely accomplished and it stands as one of the most gripping British movies of the year so far. It’s a richly symbolic tale that focuses on the moral cocktail shaker that love can transpire to be, as well as a more straightforward serial killer mystery. Around halfway through the film, Buckley’s character is seen walking through woodland, with her conservative blouse hanging half-in and half-out of her skirt, as if suggesting her status as a woman on the precipice of a decision between order and chaos. It’s impossible to call the decision she will make, right up until the compelling, dark final moments.
There’s a chat with Pearce and Buckley about the movie, as well as a commentary track.
Pop or Poop?
With great central performances by Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn, Beast is a compelling first feature from Michael Pearce. Its heart of pure darkness provides a savage backdrop to the instinctive, primal relationship that sits at the heart of the narrative. Pearce’s story is difficult to predict and packs its fair share of surprises, but the focus is wisely placed upon the shoulders of Buckley and Flynn, who are more than able to meet that challenge.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
Beast is available on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK now, courtesy of Altitude Entertainment.