Beast (2017)

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The last film I reviewed on this blog was set in Guernsey, and this week we’re hopping across the Channel to the island of Jersey for Michael Pearson’s directorial debut Beast. Their close locations promise to be the only thing the two picture have in common, however, with the former being a quaint, comfortable period drama and the latter a dark, sinister psychological thriller. They say things always come in threes, so tune in next week for a review of the latest flick out of Sark!

Beast tells the story of Moll (Jessie Buckley), a lonely 27 year old with a problematic past who sparks a deep and electric connection with Pascal (Johnny Flynn), a mysterious local who appears to be one of the main suspects in a serial killing spree on the island that has seen the rape and murder of several teenage girls. Constantly belittled and ostracised by her mother (played by Geraldine James), Moll finds solace in the rebellious relationship, and the narrative proceeds as part crime procedural, part dark melodrama, with plenty of secrets revealed and actions taken. The wheels don’t stop turning until the final credits role.

For a first time directorial effort, Beast feels like an accomplished and well executed piece of filmmaking. The story is one that flip flops, alternatively meeting and expelling audience expectations to interesting and intriguing effect. The small Jersey setting of the piece helps to add to the claustrophobia of the tone, doubling down the feeling of entrapment both for victims of the mystery killer, for Moll’s physical surroundings and for her mental state of mind. There is almost something stunted about the character’s personality, a 27 year old treated more like a teenager by her family, therefore prone to teenage rebellion and outbursts that make for rather jarring and uncomfortable viewing. There is a tense, silent menace running throughout the entire narrative, arguably one of the quietest and most low key films about the hunt for a serial killer I have ever seen. My level of engagement despite the low key nature of the picture is testament to the strength of its execution and assuredness both in front of and behind the camera.

As an audience member, you don’t feel the unbearable weight of classical horror tension that you feel in something like A Quiet Place, but there is no doubting that Beast is an uneasy experience from beginning to end. Some might call the pace slow, but I prefer to call it creeping. The film works to flip the switch on traditional procedural/murder mystery narratives, seemingly placing you on the other side of the divide, not asking you to guess, but rather asking you to accept the inevitable and watch it unfold from the wrong side of the fence. That isn’t to say that the plot is predictable, because there are definitely a few twisteroos to enjoy along the way.

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Jessie Buckley does some really great work as Moll, a troubled, conflicted woman who doesn’t seem to be at peace or comfortable in any situation. She succeeds in evoking such an unease in her physicality and her personality, although importantly you are drawn to the character in a sympathetic way despite her questionable life choices. I have fond memories of Buckley from her time as a contestant on I’d Do Anything, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s TV talent search for a Nancy in his West End production of Oliver!, and it’s great to see her versatility and talent still developing a decade later.

As the quiet, brooding Pascal, Johnny Flynn embodies exactly the kind of strong but silent presence that a woman like Moll would be drawn to. A man of few words, Flynn excels in allowing his striking, rugged physical presence to be the most prominent aspect of his character. Crucially for a narrative such as this, the actor manages to walk the subtle line of trust that is needed for the audience not to make up their minds too quickly, and his air of slightly sympathetic mystery strikes the perfect tone for the film. Together, Buckley and Flynn share an electric chemistry. There is something about two people on the edge coming together that make for really tense but addictive viewing, and that is certainly the case here.

Overall, Beast is a solid psychological thriller that makes a bigger impact than its small scale might suggest. Two really good central performances and a consistent foreboding tone will keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s not a perfect film by any means, but it is certainly worth your time if you are looking for something without a superhero in sight in the month of May!

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