BEAST: Feature Image

Our mistakes often define us far more than our successes. So, it seems, is the case of the residents of a small British island known as Jersey in the film BEAST. It is a place where people don’t tend to move on and thus spend the rest of their lives defined by their most awful moments.

Worse, it also removes a lot of the impetus to improve yourself. In a place where everyone’s vision of you seems already set, why try to be better? Why reach for change when obscuring oneself is equally effective and so much easier? It is that kind of environment that makes people mistaken into monsters. It is that kind of place where BEAST unfolds.

BEAST: The cliffs of Jersey
In BEAST, Johnny Flynn and Jessie Buckley contemplate the edge (Courtesy of 30West)

The Idea Behind BEAST

Moll (Jessie Buckley) is a 27-year-old living at home, under her mother (Geraldine James) Hilary’s thumb. Ostensibly there to watch her ailing father, it seems more like Moll lives under house arrest stemming from an incident that occurred in school some 13 years ago. She has long claimed it was in self-defense, but her mom continues to wield it like a whip to keep her adult daughter at her beck and call.

At her 27th birthday, Moll loses the spotlight to her engaged younger sister Polly (Shannon Tarbet). Little sis has decided that there is no better time to announce her pregnancy than the midst of Moll’s garden party where, already, the guest list features no friends of Moll’s own. Angry, Moll slips away for a night of dancing that nearly leads to assault until Pascal Renuof (Johnny Flynn) chases off the assailant.

There begins their romance, one that does not sit well with nearly anyone else. Mom hates how it has unseated her from a place of power. Sister hates how uncouth Pascal is. Would-be suitor and police officer Harrison (Oliver Maltman) is jealous and may or may not be letting that jealousy convince him Pascal is a serial killer that is stalking teen girls on the island.

When the investigation narrows in on Pascal, Moll finds herself pulled into the whirlwind as well.

Magnetic Robbie Let Down by Stylish, Empty TERMINAL

The Writing

Nearly every line of writer-director Michael Pearce’s screenplay strikes with force. Almost no one on Jersey says what they mean until their temper gets the better of them. However, they have become so well-studied in the art of passive aggression that their attempts to fake being kind still hit like hammer blows.

Pearce also crafts moments well, confidently not trying to make every scene a corker. Instead, he builds one on top of the other, triggering a dread that settles on you before you even truly understand why.

Unfortunately, the script tries for just a bit too much. The central mystery often feels less than central. Ultimately, it does less to reveal the characters than Pearce seems to think it does. If he had only settled for the benign horror of common cruelty—domestic abuse, arrogance, negligence—and not bothered with the fireworks of a serial killer, one can imagine the tighter, more disquieting text that could have been.

BEAST: Happy 27th Birthday
Jessie Buckley is talking to the woman in the mirror in a scene from BEAST (Courtesy of 30West)

Casting The Leads of BEAST

Jessie Buckley is simply excellent as Moll. At first appearing empty and resigned, we witness her becoming—or perhaps it is her returning to—herself. Mercurial and flint strong, she quickly proves herself a woman of will. She has grown hardened under her mother’s oppression, not at all cowed like Hilary expected.

As Moll connects and revels in her sexuality, we witness her become nearly feral. In one scene, she claims her family’s cream couch. Legs sprawled apart, dress unbuttoned, she drags her dirty nails back and forth on the fabric. She is both settled in a post-orgasmic fuzz and as aggressive as we’ve seen her.

She also has not actually put that moment from her childhood behind her. As the story forces Moll to unravel, Buckley lets us see that the Beast of the title might not be as obviously Pascal as it first seems.

Speaking of, Johnny Flynn’s Pascal Renouf is a great realization of the worst traits of serial abusers that somehow never feels stale. His Pascal is different, eccentric, and encouraging of Moll’s rebellious streak. He also comes across as pathetic, hair triggered, and violent. Even as he invites Moll to leave on multiple occasions, promising not to follow, you can feel how disingenuous the offer is. If Moll was to take it, you cannot help but think of the violence he would perpetuate upon her.

And yet, you also feel—as he does—that he might be getting a raw deal. His earlier mistake could have just been rough sex with an inappropriate—but evidently not illegal—partner interrupted by overzealous parents. Not good, but also years in the past and not fair to have it define him forever. He seems to be a monster, but perhaps not entirely.

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Casting the Rest of the BEAST Call Sheet

Geraldine James, on the other hand, is a nightmare of a person. In a movie full of violent people hurting others, she never lifts a hand to strike another. And yet, she seems the least redeemable. Referring to herself as Moll’s best friend, she coerces, scorns, threatens, and neglects her without hesitation. There is no sense of regret or ambivalence about what she is doing. She may never say it but she feels Moll owes her. Until Moll repays the debt—which of course, Hilary will never allow—mom feels entitled to treating her daughter however she wants.

Oliver Maltman fills Harrison with a sort of awkward goodness in his first scene that he then slowly removes, piece by piece, with each subsequent appearance on-screen. First, there comes manipulation dressed up as concern. Then, abuse of power disguised as help. Next, denial as apology. Then, finally, only cruelty remains. He’s the nice guy of the internet who has been told no when he hints at, asks, and finally, demands nudes. Moll will not be what he wants her to be and, eventually, he feels empowered to punish her for it.

BEAST: Gat gat
Johnny Flynn takes aim in BEAST (Courtest of 30West)

Filming

Filmed predominantly on location on the island of Jersey, Pearce captures the way expansive beauty and claustrophobia go hand-in-hand in this place. Every road seems to lead back to itself; every peak makes it that much clearer how isolated Jersey is.

Pearce has a great instinct for catching his characters as well. He loves to let the camera linger. A shot reveals a smile that evaporates into an affectless mask. Another captures eyes that spark with rage before being quickly snuffed out for proprietary sake. A third records the hesitation of someone reaching for attraction knowing there will be a cost from those that claim to love and care for them.

The film does not hide its more exploitative moments, but does reveal them quickly or off kilter. You know what you have seen, but the shot changes fast enough that your brain still succumbs to the temptation to fill in details, to make the bad thing worse.

Desire Deferred Fuels Incredible DISOBEDIENCE

Striking the Set

BEAST would, perhaps, be more accurately titled BEASTS as Jersey is clearly a place where the snarling, the cruel, and the wicked rule the land. Pascal, with his criminal history and his comfort with headbutts and choking, is the obvious choice. However, as noted above, we quickly realize Hilary is more that bestial in her own right. As Moll’s version of her expulsion comes into question, we realize that she too carries a bestial side. Finally, we have Harrison. Rather than do the right thing during Moll’s lowest moment, he takes the opportunity to punish her. As a detective and a human being, one would expect he’d seek to help, but no. In the safety of his own home, he shows her his true face.

As the film revels in and reveals the mundanity of people’s inhumanity, the murder mystery undercuts, not aids to, the message. It is, for me, the weakest part of the movie. Giving Pascal the same past and focusing on the idea of mistakes v. soul-deep evil could elucidate the same themes without what felt like an artificially attached crime plot line.

However, BEAST stayed with me long after I left the theatre and settled back in next to me as I started this review. It is not a perfect film, but it is the kind of movie that demands your attention. The kind of cinematic experience that burrows into you.

BEAST: Mean mugging!
Jessie Buckley and Geraldine James face off as daughter and mother in BEAST (Courtesy of 30West)

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