Beast is the remarkable feature debut from writer-director Michael Pearce, a jaggedly enigmatic drama that unfurls with velvety assurance. It pivots around the identity of a serial killer, and lurking in the depths of this absorbing guessing game is a dark and discomfiting exploration of desire: the film pulsates with unruly psycho-sexual energy and violent passion, sometimes implied, just as often not. In the opening moments the film’s heroine is castigated for holding back (“I need more from you,” her sharply disapproving mother tells her). Well, that reprimand doesn’t apply to Beast: this is made with unrestrained panache.
The focus is on Moll, a woman in her late twenties, still living with her parents in quiet suburbia on the Channel island of Jersey. Brilliantly played by Jessie Buckley, Moll is, when we first meet her, tightly contained and demure. Her quietly fearsome mother, who uses the memory of an act of violence that Moll carried out when she was a teenager to shame her daughter into submissive line, keeps a close eye on her, and the presiding atmosphere is one of stifling conformity.
That changes for Moll when, on a whim, she flees the rather joyless birthday party her family have put on for her to go out to a local club. On the beach at daybreak she encounters Pascal (Johnny Flynn), and there’s a burgeoning attraction. Pascal is a striking fellow, with a wildness and rugged physicality to him. His introduction is by way of attacking a man Moll met at the club to prevent him from sexually assaulting her. Driving Moll home in his vintage Land Rover he reveals a plastic vat filled with dead rabbits, the result of a night poaching on private land. “Can you keep a secret?” Pascal says in a conspiratorial hush to Moll. As meet-cutes go, this falls into the gothic variety.
The first kiss Moll shares with Pascal is on a narrow rocky outcrop, high above the sea, and that sense of peril infuses their relationship
Moll’s family, inevitably, disapprove of the rough, impulsive Pascal, but he seems to release in the young woman something that she’s repressed over the years. After heady sex with Pascal in a forest at night, Moll returns to her family home and wipes her muddy hands on the immaculate cream surface of the sofa. So long taken for granted, Moll, you sense, is at last leaving a mark – and she finds the experience exhilarating.
But there’s danger here too: the first kiss she shares with Pascal is on a narrow rocky outcrop, high above the sea, and that sense of peril infuses the relationship. A serial killer is on the loose on the island, the victims all young women. A local detective – who carries a torch for Moll – brings up Pascal’s troubled past, and indicates he’s a suspect.
Pascal’s initial interest in Moll’s ability to keep a secret suddenly acquires a nervy significance. What develops is twisty, layered psychological puzzle-piece, an expertly maintained study in doubt. Who should Moll believe? Has her desire for Pascal blinded her to his true nature?
And all the while, she herself is pushed to new extremes, at once relishing a new-found sense of liberation but at the same time terrified by the spiralling loss of control. The beast within her has the powers to renew and to destroy. In a film of high achievement across the board, Buckley is especially good, giving a performance of expressive ferocity that fully embodies the primal resonances of the title.
Beast is in cinemas from April 27