Film Review: Beast

A formulaic and frequently preposterous thriller about a young girl involved with a possible killer.
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There are many monsters in Beast, but the identity of the worst one—responsible for abducting and killing four girls on the remote island of Jersey—is the primary focus of writer-director Michael Pearce’s debut feature. Alas, despite starting strong, this psychosexual thriller is at once ham-fisted, obvious and all-too-frequently preposterous. A formidable lead performance from newcomer Jessie Buckley notwithstanding, it delivers so many formulaic dramatic elements and red herrings that it quickly devolves into a leaden guessing game.

Moll (Buckley) is introduced plucking a solitary hair from the middle of her neck, and if that’s not enough to imply her animalism, some later shots of the full moon adequately do the trick—as does the revelation that, years earlier, Moll nearly stabbed a classmate to death, thereby resulting in expulsion and home schooling. Thanks to her domineering mother Hilary (Geraldine James), who never misses an opportunity to put her daughter down—including in front of the girl’s older, more respectable sister Polly (Shannon Tarbet)—Moll is miserable. Thus, at her birthday party, she finds herself unable to put on a brave face and bails for a nearby nightclub, where she meets a young man who, in the morning, tries to force himself on her. Before she can successfully resist him, Moll is saved by Pascal (Johnny Flynn), a local roughneck hunter and handyman, and an unlikely romance is born.

Snooty suburban Hilary naturally hates Pascal for his “smell,” which only further pushes Moll into his arms. A bigger complication for their amour than maternal disapproval, however, is the police’s investigation into a string of murders. On that case is Clifford (Trystan Gravelle), whose affection for Moll isn’t reciprocated, and who thus pinpoints Pascal as a prime suspect, thanks to the loner’s history of criminal trouble, including the assault of a fourteen-year-old girl when he was eighteen. Viewing this as merely another form of the bullying that she herself has experienced, Moll refuses to believe in Pascal’s guilt, going so far as to lie about his whereabouts on a night in question to the cops, and flaunting her affection for him in front of her judgmental family.

Pearce embellishes his action with cutaways to crashing waves (to emphasize the couple’s wild passion) and dream sequences in which Moll imagines herself being assaulted by masked attackers—or is she the attacker in those fantasies? Beast repeatedly dispenses false clues in order to keep one guessing, but with only two legitimate outcomes suggested by the material at hand, such narrative devices come across as hokey and tiresome. That’s also true with regards to the story’s class dynamics, which—like the characterizations of Hilary and the cops, who fixate on Pascal mainly because he’s dirty and has done some shady things in the past, not because of any evidence tying him to these crimes—are hopelessly one-note. Throughout, Buckley exhibits both a vulnerability and vehemence that bring Moll’s roiling inner condition to ferocious life. Too bad her stellar turn is in service of second-rate suspense.

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