If a “thriller” doesn’t have a lot of action, it had better come up with some other way to keep its audience riveted. The dark, edgy drama Beast manages this, big time—it has thrills to spare, but they come from a deft accumulation of detail. For his impressive debut feature, writer-director Michael Pearce crafts an eerie mood of unspecified menace in which anything might happen, and anyone might be capable of the most heinous actions. Trying to figure out whodunit—that weary cliché—is a puzzle that keeps us on the edge of our seats in Pearce’s capable hands.
There is no lack of candidates in the film’s contemporary village community on the isle of Jersey, off the southern coast of England. The town is on edge over a series of murders of young women. The serial-killer-on-the-loose motif is standard for the genre, but Pearce uses it as a launching pad to examine the tensions (emotional, psychological and cultural) already at work beneath the placid surface of this middle-class community.
At the heart of the story is twentysomething Moll, skillfully played with both presence and vulnerability by Irish singer and actress Jessie Buckley. Employed as a tour guide on one of the “granny buses” that cart visitors on holiday around the island, Moll’s demeanor is affable, yet reserved, under her mop of flame-red curls.
Her reservation is understandable when we see her at home within the family unit. Moll’s ferociously passive-aggressive Mum (Geraldine James) is the church choir mistress, determined to control Moll’s every thought, word, and deed with the same iron-fisted precision. She won’t tolerate any false notes in her daughter’s behavior, due to some transgression in Moll’s past to which her Mum makes dire allusions. And once Moll has been sufficiently berated, Mum insistently renews the fiction that they are now “friends” again.
In flight from her own suffocating birthday party one evening, Moll heads for the local dance club, parties all night, and ends up at dawn wandering the grassy cliffs above the seacoast with a man she barely knows. Who knows what might happen next, if not for the timely appearance of Pascal Renouf (Johnny Flynn, unsettling yet dynamic) with a shotgun, a Jeep, and a basketful of illegally poached rabbits.
Pascal is a reclusive young handyman living in an old stone cottage inherited from his parents far out on the edge of town. Despite, or perhaps because of, her mum’s stern objections, Moll begins a tentative flirtation with Pascal (she hires him to do some repair work around the house) that erupts into something much more intense. She admires his indifference to what other people think, and the freedom that comes with it. He responds to something wild inside her that everyone else has been trying to suppress for years.
Of course, as Moll parades Pascal around on the fringe of her mother’s elite circle, it develops that the handyman is a prime suspect in the murders. But it takes all the rest of the movie to unravel Pearce’s intricate layers. Clifford (Trystan Gravelle), a policeman investigating the killings, has an ulterior motive; he has a crush on Moll. What about that other guy picking up women at the club? In a bracing riff on the good-cop/bad-cop scene, the silver-haired police woman (Olwen Fouéré) in charge of the investigation, dismisses Clifford from the room to grill Moll with alarming intensity.
And what are we to make of the disturbing visions of home invaders in hoodies who terrorize Moll? Not every question is neatly wrapped up in Beast, but the stylish look of the movie, its dark heart, and the fascinating complexity of leads Buckley and Flynn make for a highly satisfying thriller.
*** (out of four)
With Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn, and Geraldine James. Written and directed by Michael Pearce. A Roadside Attractions release. Rated R. 107 minutes.