Life’s a game of wants and grasping at things out of our reach, trying like hell to attain them in a desperate bid for happiness. In the psychological thriller Beast, no one knows this more than the put-upon Moll (Jessie Buckley), the literal red-headed non-stepchild of the Huntington family. In an explosive, spellbinding performance by Buckley, we’re introduced to a woman detached from the vibrance of everyone and everything around her.
Early on, she’s hit on by an older policeman at her birthday party in what we infer to be the latest attempt in a long list of attempts at wooing her. Her domineering mother Hilary (Geraldine James) singles her out at choir practice and talks down to her like she hasn’t grown past adolescence. When she’s not working as a history guide on the “granny-wagon” (read: local tourist bus), she’s supposed to be caring for her dementia-stricken father or babysitting her brother’s child. And her uppity sister Polly (Shannon Tarbet) announces she’s expecting twins right in the middle of Moll’s party, taking the attention away from her, like she seems to have always done.
So when mysterious, rifle-toting stranger Pascal (Johnny Flynn) stops a clubgoer from potentially raping her, her world seems to spark to life. He treats her like an equal, unlike the other denizens of her small community. But is he all he seems? Is he merely a wandering tradesman, illegally poaching off the land and living what looks to be a squatter’s existence in his car? Or could he be the kidnapper and murderer behind all the devastating news reports we so fleetingly see on their televisions?
Regardless, Moll seems to finally have something which belongs to her, something to which she willingly gives her time. Note the use of “something,” not “someone.” To Moll, Pascal’s an escape route. An escape from her sheltered life, from the suffocating hand of her mother, from the duty of reminding her father who or where he is, from her nauseatingly picture-perfect sister. Pascal is excitement, danger, the unknown – unlike any other guy in this little town – and she experiences an enthralled awakening, totally under the sway of this outsider.
Writer/director Michael Pearce centers Beast solely on Moll. We are in lockstep with her throughout the entire movie, being gradually brought out of the dark corners of her mind and into a new existence far from the one she knew. Yet, as we walk beside her, those dark corners reveal a sinister secret which ultimately explains her character and why we never see her around others in the community. It’s this slow burning which drives the film, as we’re not only discovering who Moll is, but Pascal as well. Awakening sleeping beasts, as it were.
Shot with great care by Benjamin Kračun, we’re treated to the vistas of the gorgeous UK island of Jersey, from moody forests to sparkling seas. They’re not only for show; they’re a metaphor for how Moll views her prison-like life. The jail-like bars of the trees, the shores leading to nowhere, her family heaving tasks on her – they’re all trapping her, with no means of getting out. No matter how Pascal may alleviate this temporarily, she’s still encased in a hell of her own making. Most scenes show her in some kind of enclosure – a bus, her house, a church, a car, a nightclub – to the point where we take heavy note of her actions when she’s away from these structures.
Buckley guides us through Moll’s chrysalis-like evolution, going from quietly bearing her daily routine and not engaging to a full-on blast of emotion and turmoil. She makes us believe in Moll, no matter how misguided or sociopathic we might think her to be. Balancing her out is Flynn’s calm, collected performance as the shady interloper with whom, to her family’s chagrin, Moll chooses to spend more time instead of giving her all to them. Flynn plays Pascal with an astonishing amount of self-control and charm, yet with an odd aloofness which hints at a darker side champing at the bit to be expressed.
The tension never goes slack in Beast, needling away at us gently until it reaches a furtive, stabbing climax. All throughout, we’re put on edge as we realize truths about Moll and Pascal, eager to watch both of their distinct personalities come to clashing blows. Pearce takes great pains to never tip his hand too early, keeping us in the game with tremulous intent and silent fury as the town closes in on Moll with the force of a hydraulic press. Even though she tries to wiggle her way out while clutching this new toy she protects like a petulant child would, there’s no escaping the truth which lies beneath the timid framework of her body and soul. Beast is a chilling poem made manifest, moving gracefully with grave precision through each stanza without forcing its way, with a cavernous difference between the first line and the last.