For Moll (Jessie Buckley), the rebellious, unstable 27-going-on-17-year-old at the center of Beast, Pascal is her knight in earthen armor. It’s her birthday in the movie’s opening moments, but she’d rather be elsewhere. Upstaged at her barbecue party by her flawless sister’s announcement of twin buns in the oven, she flees to a bar, drinks herself stupid, and dances all night with a stranger who expects more than a bump-and-grind on the bleary morning after, despite her protests to the contrary.
That’s when Pascal (Johnny Flynn) shows up with a shotgun, scaring off the perpetrator and sewing up a wound she had self-inflicted hours earlier in one of her desperate escapes from the numbness of life. In their bucolic enclave in the Channel Islands, he’s an aberration among her cosseted family and friends, a handyman with dirt under his fingernails, boots that track mud in the house, and a bucket of rabbit hides in the backseat of his truck.
He shoots animals, but he’s also one himself, and so is Moll — a pair of beasts entwined whose first lovemaking experience is on the forest ground, ravaging and primal. When Moll’s sister, flabbergasted, asks what attracts him to her, she replies, without missing a beat, “his smell.” Moments later, when her stern mother (Geraldine James) notices Pascal playing a little too rough with Moll’s niece, she implores Moll to “put a leash on him.”
If Beast were just a movie about a young woman cutting herself off from her privileged life to cavort with a fellow wild thing, it would still be a fascinating, tumultuous film. But this chilling psychodrama is much more than that, because Moll’s community is also dealing with a spate of serial killings of teenage girls, the fourth of which meets her demise the night of Moll’s birthday shenanigans. Shrines to the deceased pile up around tree trunks, local television covers each rape-and-murder with customary relentlessness, and an upstanding police officer with eyes for Moll (Trystan Gravelle) is hot on the case. Perhaps it’s not the best time to pair up with sketchy outsider with scars on his face, proficiency with firearms and, yes, a criminal record.
First-time writer director Michael Pearce proves himself an expert pusher of our emotional buttons. Though set on the coast of an English archipelago, Beast’s tonal vernacular is classic American noir, its ambience suffused with dread. Pearce establishes an atmosphere in which suspicion and paranoia wash ashore with the tide, and every onscreen embrace can transform, in bestial fashion, into a choke or a jab. This is time spent in the valves and aortas of the heart of darkness.
As a mystery, Beast keeps its audience guessing until the final moments, and as a psychological character study, it’s a doubly disturbing portrait of a couple feeding each other’s worst pathologies. Like the captive whale Moll speaks about in the movie’s opening lines, she becomes trapped, suffocated by remorse from crimes she may or may not have had a part in, her fatalistic nightmares beginning to seem indistinguishable from reality.
It culminates a necessarily grisly climax that, to this haunting movie’s credit, resolves its central question but knows better than to leave us satisfied. I won’t soon forget the unsettling ambivalence of its final moments, an acknowledgment of the beast inside of all.
BEAST. Director: Michael Pearce; Cast: Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn, Geraldine James, Trystan Gravelle, Shannon Tarbet; Distributor: Roadside Attractions; Rating: R; Opens: Friday, May 25, at AMC Shadowood and Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, the Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale, AMC Aventura and Regal South Beach