The characters of Beast – Michael Pearce’s debut feature – walk a thin tightrope of ambiguity, seasoned by a closeted life in the tightknit, shady community of Jersey. It’s a place bathed in a lonely kind of beauty, haunted by loss, and stalked by hidden figures writhing around in the dark.
Windy cliffs and craggy beaches provide the backdrop to the wayward, alienated life of Jessie Buckley’s Moll – a home-schooled twenty-something, and an outcast in her own home. She’s kept under tight wraps by her mother, played brilliantly by Geraldine James, who exerts all her maternal power over Moll wearing the same clinical, shallow smile that marks Jersey’s many inhabitants. Her command over Moll is challenged however with the arrival of Pascal, a mysterious stranger with dirt under his fingernails and animal skins in the back of his truck. Moll is drawn to Pascal as if they were kindred spirits: he has an authenticity to him that her neighbours and family members lack, demonstrated in the rawness of his hands, the bluntness of his speech, and the way he smells. The appearance of several roadside memorials interrupts her bliss: underage girls are being raped and murdered, left to rot with dirt clogging their mouths, and many whisper Pascal’s name. Throughout, director Michael Pearce plays with audience expectations, creating a film that’s part love story, part psychological drama, part psychosexual thriller.
Beast is tinged with this underlying social satire, this sense of absurdity in certain elements of the middle class lifestyle: the need to perform, to compete in social situations, the pettiness and the pickiness. Certain scenes approached the blackness of a film like Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers. Part of the fun is watching Moll slowly drifting further and further away from polite society, rejecting the ‘sensible’ things expected of her. Buckley’s performance has a lot to do with that: there’s an unreadability to her which is really engrossing, though occasionally a bit awkward. As a character she’s difficult to penetrate or telegraph, though you understand her general dynamic. The ambiguity definitely works in the film’s favour, but I often wondered where it was going, and where it was wrapping up. The ending works well, instilling an offsetting, disturbed mood, but I feel the film could have ended at numerous points beforehand, and I still would have left satisfied.
Structurally, too, the film falters a bit, losing a bit of steam mid-way through. Some scenes, such as an interrogation scene between Moll and the police, feel a little redundant, and some of the character writing, for all the film’s moral greyness, is a little too on the nose, too blatant to be taken entirely seriously. Beast works better if you think of it as a dark fairy tale or nursery rhyme, written by a late period Lou Reed or Nick Cave.
This does little to take away from all the things Beast does right. An impressive debut, it’s opaque without being obscure, fun without sacrificing its darker edges. Moll is like an off-centre Katie Morag, and Pascal her very own Heathcliff, their shared anger at the world a murky blend of gingery hair and sweat, tainted with the blood of dead women.