Isolated misfit Moll Huntford has been obsessed with killer whales since childhood, she informs us in forthright voiceover: “They always seem to be smiling.” The same might be said, of course, of a number of bloodthirsty mammals, a truth that keeps British writer-director Michael Pearce’s prickly, twistily effective first feature “Beast” on a ridge of queasy tension throughout. The title may be in the singular form, but it turns out there are multiple human monsters lurking on Moll’s native island of Jersey, though presumably only one of them is on an escalating killing spree targeting young women just like her — and annoyingly enough, he might just be the rogueishly cute guy she’s really into. Upgrading a sleeping-with-the-enemy premise familiar from countless B-thrillers with a faintly mythic aura and cool psychosexual shading, “Beast” also sustains a fresh, frank feminine perspective through Jessie Buckley’s remarkable lead performance.
Following its premiere in Toronto’s Platform strand, “Beast” should enjoy broad festival play thanks to its canny art-horror balance — it’s a film as suitable for midnight berths as it is for less genre-inclined programs. That might make its commercial position a little less clear-cut, though Pearce’s debut (which follows a handful of acclaimed shorts, including the BAFTA-nominated “Keeping Up With the Joneses”) is too nervy and accomplished to be ignored by specialist distributors.
Soundtracked to the trembling, ethereal echo of a classical women’s choir, the opening scenes swiftly establish the peaceful, slightly alienated conservatism of life on the British island of Jersey — the director’s own home territory, and duly evoked with expansive, non-touristic sweep by cinematographer Benjamin Kračun in sharp strokes of seagrass hue. It’s an introduction that strikes a slightly misleading note of stylistic austerity: There are more wicked exploits to come, along with a fine streak of humor the shade of dried blood. However, like its pale, angel-faced heroine, one of the singers in that very choir, “Beast” takes its time to reveal its hungry inner darkness.
From our very first glimpse of 27-year-old Moll, even her live shock of copper-wire curls marks her as something of an outlier in her greige-colored community, where she still lives with her parents — oppressively held back from building her own life since a traumatically violent event in her teens. She’s somehow a fringe presence even at her own birthday party, a joyless affair organized by her stonily domineering mother (a shudder-inducing Geraldine James), from which she steals away unnoticed to the local nightclub. Cue a reckless night (and morning) on the tiles, culminating in a chance encounter with Pascal (Johnny Flynn), a handsomely rough-hewn, hunter-gathering man of the land. Despite his enigmatic, evasive energy — as unnervingly played by Flynn, his heavy gaze never quite seems to meet anyone else’s — the tinderbox attraction between them is immediate.
Moll’s sudden new boyfriend wouldn’t be warmly greeted by her snobbish, insular family under the best of circumstances; when police excavate the corpse of the fourth young woman murdered on the isle in recent months, their hostility is mingled with paranoia. When the authorities take an unfriendly interest in Pascal too, Moll’s insistent defense of him makes increasingly makes her a social pariah. How much she believes her own denial, however, and how perversely aroused she is by the possibility of her loyalty being misplaced, are questions that Buckley’s cunning performance keeps pliable throughout.
An Irish musical theater star who recently made a strong impression in the BBC’s “War and Peace” miniseries, Buckley reveals great, gutsy range here, pivoting from otherworldly ingenuousness to headlong carnal euphoria to agonized outcast with nary a lapse in credibility. Pearce, meanwhile, pulls off a tricky hire-wire act of his own, keeping the film’s whodunnit structure tightly screwed without lapsing too far into genre contrivance — with the many, varied screeches and squeaks of Jim Williams’ terrifically rattling score lending a significant hand in this regard. Despite its most lurid trappings, “Beast” is, first and foremost, an inquisitive and empathetic character study, focused on the psychologically possessive qualities of belatedly unleashed sexuality.
There’s also a subtle political undertow to its examination of community-wide prejudice and punishment — given further nuance by the particular social history of the once-French region: “You’re on my land,” the French-rooted Pascal tells Moll’s family with thin-lipped irony, after her dense, parochial brother goads him for his “native intuition” regarding the ongoing murder case. Pearce’s script perhaps errs a little in making Moll’s family almost inhumanly ghastly, though such exaggeration is understable in a film partially fashioned as a warped adult fairytale — at least, until the horror mechanics take hold. The counteracting beauty implied by the title is certainly present, though perhaps not all that separate from its beasts.