×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Beast’

The old sleeping-with-the-enemy premise gets a nervy psychosexual update in Michael Pearce's auspicious art-horror debut.

Director:
Michael Pearce
With:
Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn, Geraldine James, Trystan Gravelle, Oliver Maltman, Charley Palmer Rothwell.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5628302/

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. It turns out there are multiple human monsters lurking on Moll’s native island of Jersey, though 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, 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 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 high-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 understandable 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.

Film Review: 'Beast'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Platform), Aug. 23, 2017. Running time: 106 MIN.

Production: (U.K.) A Film4, British Film Institute presentation of a Stray Bear Films, Agile Films production. (International sales: Protagonist Pictures, London.) Producers: Ivana MacKinnon, Lauren Dark, Kristian Brodie. Executive producers: Myles Payne, David Staniland, Natascha Wharton, Sam Lavender, David Kosse.

Crew: Director, screenplay: Michael Pearce. Camera (color, widescreen): Benjamin Kračun. Editor: Maya Maffioli. Music: Jim Williams.

With: Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn, Geraldine James, Trystan Gravelle, Oliver Maltman, Charley Palmer Rothwell.

More Film

  • First Look at Cannes-Bound ‘Diego Maradona’

    First Look at Cannes-Bound ‘Diego Maradona’ Feature Documentary

    Diego Maradona waves to raucous Napoli fans before heading into a media scrum and press conference in the first clip from the feature documentary about the soccer superstar. “Diego Maradona” is the third film from the team behind the award-winning “Senna” and “Amy,” with Asif Kapadia directing and James Gay-Rees and Paul Martin producing. They [...]

  • Raising Hell: The Life and Times

    Film Review: 'Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins'

    One of the more entertaining as well as insightful political commentators of the past half-century is paid a suitably entertaining tribute in “Raise Hell.” A long tall Texan too amusingly outrageous to draw real resentment from most of her targets, Molly Ivins nonetheless aimed stinging criticism at political figures both national and in her native [...]

  • The Lighthouse

    Cannes: Directors' Fortnight Unveils Lineup

    Robert Eggers’ anticipated “The Lighthouse” with Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, Luca Guadagnino’s medium-length film “The Staggering Girl” and Japanese helmer Takashi Miike’s “First Love” are set to unspool at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight under the new leadership of Paolo Moretti. Described by Moretti as a “hypnotic two-hander” powered by Pattinson and Dafoe, “The Lighthouse” is [...]

  • Media Luna Acquires ‘We Had It

    Cannes Festival: Media Luna Takes ‘We Had It Coming,’ ‘The Friendly Man’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    In the run-up to next month’s Cannes Festival, Cologne-based Media Luna New Films has acquired international rights to “We Had It Coming,” starring Natalie Krill (“Wynonna Earp,” “Below Her Mouth”) and Brazil’s “The Friendly Man,” one of the standouts at Ventana Sur’s strong Copia Final showcase of near-finished Latin American movies. MK2 Mile End will [...]

  • ‘Avengers: Endgame’ Stars Make Emotional Speeches

    ‘Avengers: Endgame’ Stars Make Emotional Speeches at Historic Marvel Premiere

    If more than twenty worldwide blockbusters over ten years sounds like a big undertaking, try locking up the cell phones and smartwatches of Hollywood’s most important people for four hours. Only a franchise with the cache of the “Avengers” series could have A-list talent, celebrity fans, agents and executives gladly turn over their gadgets for [...]

  • Avengers: Endgame

    'Avengers: Endgame' First Reactions: 'Most Emotional, Most Epic MCU Film'

    The end is finally here. “Avengers: Endgame” had its world premiere Monday night at the Los Angeles Convention Center and reactions on social media from fans, journalists and critics are already pouring in. The reaction has so far been almost universally positive, with several commentors warning fans of the movie’s emotional elements. Brandon Davis wrote [...]

  • Josh Brolin, Kathryn Boyd. Josh Brolin,

    'Avengers: Endgame's' Josh Brolin: Thanos' Butt Is a 'Beautiful, Purple Peach'

    On the eve of “Avengers: Endgame’s” world premiere, everyone’s thoughts have turned to the one crucial detail that could be the difference between life or death for the Avengers: Does Thanos have a butt? “I don’t know what that whole thing is about! I really don’t!” Josh Brolin, who plays Thanos, told Variety‘s Marc Malkin [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content