After the astounding attention to detail and visceral imagery displayed in short films such as Rite (2010) and Keeping Up with The Joneses (2013), Michael Pearce’s boldly directed debut feature Beast (2017) makes no compromise in fulfilling the promise of his previous work.
Set on the island of Jersey, Beast centres around stifled bus tour-guide Moll (Jessie Buckley) who seems to be a submissive presence within her family and muted even to herself. After leaving her own birthday party for a night of drunken abandon, Moll is saved from an aggressive sexual advance by Pascal (Johnny Flynn), a wayward hunter. From their first encounter, Pascal’s greasy hair and blood-stained hands tread the wafer-thin line between the rugged and handsome saviour, and the animalistic, unsavoury outsider. A Badlands-esque romance develops between them, much to the disapproval of Moll’s family and surrounding community. Their relationship is further strained by the fact that Pascal remains the prime suspect in the disappearance and murder of young teenage girls. Moll must either humour the overwhelming evidence against her new love or maintain solidarity with the person who seems to understand her the most.
Moll’s mother Hilary, played with cold and controlling ferocity by Geraldine James, desperately wants to maintain her strong influence over her daughter – being mother, best friend, authority figure and guidance counsellor – as Pascal leads her further down a path of self-destruction and disregard of social etiquette. Pascal’s earthy intensity undercuts Hilary’s promotion of wholesome family values and upstanding bourgeois protocol as he personifies the source of rebellion that Moll has been craving. Hilary’s mollycoddling of her daughter – whom she chastises whenever she leaves the house despite Moll being in her late twenties – seems to have some grounds since an incident of “self-defence” against a school bully led to her being home-schooled at a young age. This instigates the first of many questions regarding who within the couple is simply wounded and misunderstood, and who is actively dangerous.
Moll appears to be at odds with how her individualist (and potentially destructive) impulses can possibly co-exist within such a stagnant home environment that is built upon conformity. This dilemma is cleverly addressed in an early scene through her conscious decision to pluck a stray long hair from her neck after some deliberation in front of the mirror. Moll’s need to explore herself in such a way arguably makes Pascal a perfectly logical escape for her and a potential solution to such internal conflict. Everything he does is done without compromise in that he smokes inside without asking permission, vocally undermines Moll’s family over dinner and openly displays violent and confrontational tendencies. Essentially he is the snobbish upper-middle-class household’s nightmare, yet Flynn plays the character with an almost endearing sense of seeming honesty and forthrightness.
Benjamin Kracun’s cinematography in Beast perfectly balances the natural beauty of the beaches and dunes of Jersey with the fabricated beauty of pristine houses and garden parties, further complimenting the earthy imagery that is at times both freeing and threatening. Much the same can be said about the sound design from frequent collaborator Gunnar Óskarsson as Pearce (like in his short films) really draws our attention to calm wind, waves and tweeting birds as much as chewing, ripping of flesh and crushing shards of glass.
The ways in which Pearce’s attention to detail act as a vessel for tension really make this film something more than its components. We find discomfort and unease from the dirt embedded in Pascal’s fingernails and the disregard of his muddied boots seeping into Hilary’s pristine carpet. The same can be said about the dream sequences of genuine horror that are so seamlessly detached from reality and true to the world of unreliable characters that they maintain the capacity to shock in a narrative with so many twists and turns. There are points toward the end where certain revelations would feel tedious or forced if this were another by-the-numbers thriller, but the combination of the performances with Pearce’s script and direction manages to make even the most outlandish of character motivations seem plausible and perfectly in tune with what has been established.
This is a film that is not afraid to go all the way with its unsettling atmosphere, attention-grabbing visuals and disturbing portraits of the human psyche. It takes a practised confidence that Michael Pearce clearly possesses to make it authentic, thought-provoking and skin crawling in all the right places.