Moll (Jessie Buckley) is a young woman from an repressive home whose life revolves around caring for her family — her sick father, her abusive mother and her perfectly able but manipulative brother.
It’s a gilded cage, a life of wealth. Country clubs, garden parties, nice clothing. In the opening voiceover, Moll explains her empathy with captive killer whales and how despite their perpetual smile, they’re actually going insane inside the limited space of their cages. That monologue feels a little on the nose, and so it is. And so it is.
Beast throws in a mysteriously violent past for Moll as well as a handsome stranger for whom she falls head-over-heels … and who may or may not be a serial killer. It’s precisely the kind of psychological thriller you expect from those ingredients but with the added bonus of writer-director Michael Pearce’s talent for atmosphere. It’s pretty. It’s creepy. It’s unsettling in the best way possible, crafting romantic moments where the kiss might end in a killing. Which kisser is the killer?
Moll isn’t just a tempted ingénue entranced by the mystery man. Her social circle is as uncomfortable around her as she is around them. Eventually, we learn why. No spoilers here, but we know her type and experience. Moll’s mother lambasts her when she’s not at the beck-and-call. “Just can’t change the rules because somebody has shown an interest,” her mother says of her own guidelines. When Moll decides to break them, she certainly doesn’t stop at the first sign of resistance.
Johnny Flynn is Pascal Renouf, the handsome fella whose lower-class style of living bothers Moll’s family. The lovestruck couple meets when Pascal rescues Moll from an over-aggressive boy trying to take advantage of a walk home. Pascal can be violent sometimes. It’s soon after they start dating that the police start questioning Moll about her relationship to him. Turns out this bad boy really might be a bad boy: Not only is he a suspect in several local murders, but he was guilty of statutory rape at an earlier time in his life. A 14-year-old.
“We were together,” he assures Moll. Were they?
Pearce creates disorientation within the love story between Moll and Pascal and the outside forces trying to interfere. Resolution arrives, but the fun is in wondering, watching as the two go to dark places to figure out what their life together looks like. It’s a beautifully shot movie. Sound design is top notch.
Beast never touches the same emotional darkness of You Were Never Really Here or the bleak satire of Thoroughbreds, but it nonetheless reminds me of both those films sliced down into component parts and modge-podged together. It’s a good year for deconstructive violence and an even better year for movies about violent women. Not just for super-heroines whose violence is cinematically “justified” and thrillingly weightless (although it’s been great for them, too). No, Beast, like the latter mentioned above, is a movie about a woman whose attraction to violence – bloody, life-changing, sudden, brutal – helps her redefine herself and escape the boundaries incessantly laid upon her. Whether it’s condoned is beyond the point; it’s hard to deny that something is in the air.