IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 107 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Moll is a troubled young woman who lives on the island of Jersey and is treated as a slave by her mother who gets her to constantly look after her sick father. She runs off during her birthday party just to get away from her family and ex-boyfriend and local cop Clifford, and a night of clubbing and drinking results in her going off with a stranger who gets a little too aggressive. Enter poacher Pascal. The two become close, but there have been a series of murders of young women taking place on the island, and Pascal certainly seems to have a dark side.…
Though apparently inspired by the real-life ‘Beast of Jersey’ Edward Paisnel who attacked and raped some women and children on the island between 1960 and 1971, writer/director Michael Pierce has opted for his debut feature to use the oft-told premise of a woman falling for someone who may be a murderer, here seemingly garnished with some fairy tale elements that I’m sure are deliberate. However, the idea, which was probably first used by Alfred Hitchcock in 1926, usually results in a compelling watch, and Pierce has made an impressive film here which sadly seems to have only received limited release in the UK [I’m not the patriotic sort whatsoever, but isn’t it wrong that so many films that are actually made in Britain don’t get full releases in Britain?] and has had the misfortune to come out the same week as Avengers: Infinity War. It’s full of uncomfortable psychological and sexual tension which – aided by two excellent central performances – you can almost feel, and it adds an extra dimension to the premise by having a heroine who, in addition to not knowing if her beau is Prince Charming or the Big Bad Wolf, has some seriously dark aspects to herself. In fact one thing that may trouble some viewers is that one just isn’t sure whether you’re supposed to like her or not, but I think that’s absolutely great! Pierce doesn’t want to spoon feed what he thinks we should think.
At first of course we really do feel for her. Though she has a thankless job as a tour guide, Moll is pretty much an outsider in her community, and continually dominated, bossed about and patronised to by her mother, while the rest of her family don’t seem too pleasant either. Of course that’s not necessarily a reason to crush broken glass with her hand, but one can understand her storming out of her own birthday party when her brother’s girlfriend upstages her by announcing that she’s pregnant with twins. After getting drunk at a nightclub she’s rescued from unwanted attention by the rabbit shooting Pascal, and the attraction between the two is instant, though of course her family don’t take to this ‘bit of rough’ whatsoever, especially when she asks him to stay for dinner and her reveals, in a interesting class element, that, despite now being a handyman and therefore looked down upon by these middle-class English folks, he’s descended from Norman aristocracy so the others are basically on his land. Dirt – or rather mud – soon plays an important part in this movie. When Moll asks him round to fix a few things, he traipses mud all over the carpet [I’d have chucked him out]. Later on, after the couple’s first sexual encounter in the woods [where else?], she comes home covered in the stuff and plonks herself down on the settee, putting mud all over it and even seeming to scratch one of the arms as she remembers the lovemaking. Much later, she even lies in a grave and puts dirt in her mouth – though in one of several rather careless bits in the film she looks far too clean afterwards.
Pascal gives her both the passion and the focus Moll needs, the late releasing of her sexuality in particular seeming to be the thing that begins to make her into a stronger person, and initially there doesn’t seem to be that much wrong with him. It’s Clifford the local cop who seems the creepy one, at least out of the men. He and Moll seem to have had a ‘thing’ once, though it’s not stated explicitly. It’s revealed that Moll was involved in a violent incident in her childhood, and even then we still ‘kind of’ like her, but more and more begins to seem ‘off’ with her, especially when she’s told that Pascal was also involved in an incident as a child of a considerably sick nature. She confronts Pascal, and he sets her straight [supposedly] about the incident though his side of the story is still rather un-savoury – yet she’s okay with it. After this we really begin to worry about her almost as much as Pascal even when it seems more and more that he could be the brute who’s snatching young girls from their families, raping them, then shoving earth down their throats.
The actual serial killer aspect remains mostly in the background, so there’s not much in the case of police procedural or violent murder scenes which may disappoint some. The emphasis is on the increasingly twisted central relationship and this is fine for the most part, not least because the two leads are so good and help to make their characters so intriguing despite maybe holding dark secrets which may make you terrified of them. Jessie Buckley, who’s already made a name for herself with several very strong TV roles, details every beat of her character’s growth from timidity to self-assertion – or should we say to her hidden, earthy, animalistic self that we may all contain deep down within us. One of her best moments is when she simply utters a scream to hold off two attackers; it’s rather bloodcurdling but is also kind of a release for this character who has never really been allowed to express herself. Johnny Flynn may have the slightly easier part and has to be more restrained but is still very good as a kind of a nasty [or is he?]version of a D. H. Lawrence character. The two really do have strong chemistry together, even when things get more and more twisted. We’re on tender-hooks as to whether Pascal is the murderer, and even more so when Moll will find out, but – most daringly, – Beast makes us wonder whether or not Moll could actually forgive Pascal when she finds out.
Beast is filled with shots of the rugged Jersey countryside and shoreline, and even allows for a body to be found in a field of Jersey potatoes, yet Pierce is still able to convey a stifling sense of claustrophobia in the often darkly comic scenes with Moll and her family which, despite Buckley’s brilliance, are all but stolen by Geraldine James as the manipulative mother who goes to far as to humiliate her daughter in public. You really hate her character for most of the time, as if maybe she’s the real monster in the film, though Moll gets her revenge in a moment which is almost cheer-worthy. Elsewhere it’s all properly very serious, and not really resorting to conventional scare tactics either though there are a couple of dream sequences which feel rather plonked in there. ‘Shakycam’ rears its ugly head on a few occasions but it’s quite appropriate for the scenes in question and don’t go on for very long. Beast only really stumbles with its last few minutes – though actually on second thoughts “stumbles” is too strong a word as things still concludes quite satisfactorily. The finale is exciting and does end in an appropriately disturbing fashion – but how much more disturbing would the film have been if it had ended five minutes before which would have left the viewer with a stronger sense of things being carried to their logical conclusion? I got a feeling of pulling back here, of adding the end scene to make things just a little bit more palatable, though of course I could be wrong. It doesn’t ruin the film, anyway.
Beast is overall a very impressive feature film debut for this filmmaker, balancing its elements of paranoia, psychological drama and character study extremely adeptly and most definitely putting a fresh spin on its tried and tested premise. I really hope that it gets more attention in the future [I even struggled to find some interesting pictures to go with this review].