I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
A vulnerable woman. A violent man. We’re seen this dynamic onscreen countless times before, always playing out in utterly predictable ways. But there’s nothing predictable about Beast, the electrifying feature debut of British writer-director Michael Pearce. This movie would be a total upending of the genre… if it could be easily slotted into a genre. This is a serial-killer movie in which the serial killer and his crimes are merely part of the background. This is a romance and a thriller and a mystery and a psychological study, and in all those aspects it toys with our expectations and our sympathies, and with multiple ambiguities. I’m not entirely certain that it’s the woman here who is the vulnerable one, and the man the violent one. At the very least, they each contain a dollop of both powerlessness and power. At the very least, the resolution of this tale of love and sex and escape and vengeance and justice and betrayal is open to more than one interpretation.
Moll (Jessie Buckley) seems ripe for exploitation. She’s a grown woman still living with her parents: her bully of a mother, Hilary (Geraldine James: Megan Leavey, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), simultaneously treats her like a child and like a servant (Moll’s “job” is to look after her father, who suffers from dementia). At Moll’s birthday party, the family gathering that opens the film, she is upstaged by her sister, ordered about by her mother, and condescended to by old friends. Her family life is appalling, her entire life constricted, not least because she is stuck on the rural Channel Island of Jersey with little to do and little chance, it seems, of a getaway.
Enter Pascal (Johnny Flynn: Love Is Thicker Than Water), who is a bit naughty, a bit dangerous, a bit exciting: he poaches rabbits nonchalantly; he threatens with his hunting rifle men who threaten women. Moll takes to him instantly, lies for him instinctively mere minutes after they meet, can’t stay away from him. Dating him becomes a way to piss off her mother, on top of the thrill of his oddball sexiness and the fact that he is, remarkably to the modest Moll, also into her. He’s an outcast, a weirdo, just like Moll: “we’re the same,” she will eventually tell him, and mean it.
Or maybe she’s confused. Maybe she’s deluded and desperate. Could Pascal be responsible for the spate of dead teenage girls the local TV news keeps going on about? But no: Isn’t that just more of the same narrowminded bourgeois crap that her mother personifies, which cannot abide a nonconformist and is always eager to attribute the worst to someone who refuses to blend in?
Pearce hews so intimately to Moll’s perspective that we are inevitably on her side, by turns angry and sad and delighted on her behalf. So many movies about women by male filmmakers feel like those men don’t know any real women, have never spoken to an actual female member of the human species. Pearce, on the other hand, makes us believe that he listens to women; one of the most striking lines of dialogue here, in a movie full of striking dialogue, is when Moll says that she loves the way Pascal smells, which is a thing that women know is so important about finding a man attractive, yet which I cannot recall ever hearing a woman in a movie say before.
But maybe we shouldn’t be on Moll’s side? We slowly begin to learn about some terrible behavior in Moll’s past… though, as with so many things in Pearce’s brilliant, biting script, the “facts” are presented to use through the words of people who may not be entirely trustworthy, who may have deluded themselves into their own distortions of reality, or who deceive with malicious intent. But behavior of Moll’s that we witness, so there’s little question about it, also gives pause: she practices smiling in a mirror before that birthday party. Sure, that’s something that a deeply happy person might do in preparation for unwanted social interactions. But it’s also something that a sociopath might do in order to fit in among normal people. Beast keeps us endlessly on edge wondering just what to make of Moll, maybe even to whom the title might refer. If we enjoyed a broader range of messed-up women onscreen, she might not feel so revelatory a character. And Buckley’s intensely thorny embodiment of her might not feel so intoxicating. (In a just world, this movie would catapult both Buckley and Flynn to stardom; they’re mesmerizing separately, and explosive together.)
Then, about halfway through the film, the police probe of the serial killer intrudes, almost as if the intimate drama of Moll and Pascal suddenly crossed over, for a few minutes, with a gritty procedural. (The hard-nosed DCI brought in from the mainland to head up the investigation, played briefly but enthrallingly by Olwen Fouéré [The Survivalist], is obviously the star of her own BBC One detective series just making a cameo here.) And a movie that had been casually and capably overturning everything you know about stories of dangerous romance gets toppled over again.
(My one quibble with the film: Oliver Maltman [The Mercy], who plays Moll’s brother, and Trystan Gravelle [Anonymous], who plays her once-boyfriend, now cop on the case, look so much alike — and as characters are equally crass, selfish, pathetic, basic men — that at first I didn’t realize these were two different people. It’s the sort of thing that trips up a viewer, taking you out of the story by forcing you to try to parse what you’re seeing. It’s not anything like a fatal flaw to the film, but I mention it because I’ve spoken to others who’ve made the same mistake; maybe I can prevent you from doing the same.)
I’ve seen Beast twice now, and everything about its ferocity and its enigma was only doubled down and intensified upon that subsequent viewing. I cannot wait to watch it again and see where it takes me further.
first viewed during the 61st BFI London Film Festival