Beast is a delicious film. From the scenic location bursting with vegetation and rolling ocean waves, to the long lingering shots of our handsome leads. Jessie Buckley as Moll is stunning–her fiery red hair and piercing brown eyes create a hypnotizing experience. Pascal (Johnny Flynn) has a much more steely look. The string bean of Lovesick fame has a completely different air here. Instead of lanky, he’s sturdy, with unkempt facial hair to cover his boyish face. He’s constantly filthy, covered with sweat, the appearance of soot and the suggested musk of a hard day’s work. We are privy to his steady hand from the moment he fires a warning shot at Moll’s would-be attacker, a smarmy coward in a club boy button down.
The night before meeting Pascal and his rifle, Moll wandered away from her birthday party. It had just been hijacked by her blonde, newly pregnant sister (Shannon Tarbet) making an announcement about her picture-perfect life. Her mother (Geraldine James) asks her to fetch the champagne. Moll is devastated. Her birthday wasn’t a large enough event for champagne, but her military wife sister being pregnant with twins was? No one at the party seemed to acknowledge the selfishness of her sister’s actions, so Moll instead takes a moment to self-harm and then ventures off to a beachside dance club. That is where the lovers meet and their story begins.
Beast is a film bursting with sexual energy, unforgivingly juxtaposed with visions of violence that constantly leave the viewer questioning if the fun they’re having watching these two young lovers is moral. We want to root for the lovers. Moll is an outcast in her wealthy family, constantly ignored, belittled and asked to do service-like tasks. She’s wasting away in a life she merely tolerates, with the reasoning for her soft ostracization largely unclear until late in the film. We know she has a troubled history–she was bullied–but her backstory is one of an archetypal misfit. At least, that is what we are led to believe.
Pascal has an even more sympathetic story. He’s a working-class loner and orphan with a record the local police, including Moll’s would-be suitor Clifford (Trystan Gravelle), won’t let him forget. He’s awkward, soft-spoken and instantly disliked by everyone Moll introduces him to. And yet, when they are alone, Pascal is a strong, traditionally masculine presence. He is a man of the Earth making love to Moll in a field, her orgasm ringing out into the vast distance. Pascal also teaches Moll how to hunt and chop wood. He not only shows Mall love, he shows her an alternative to her privileged, pristine life.
After a confrontation with Moll’s family at a country club, the lovers run off together. Moll moves into Pascal’s house and they experience early marital bliss. Still, the specter of violence haunts their relationship. Teenage girls are being murdered on the island, and all signs point to Pascal. Moll defends Pascal not only because she loves him, but because she knows on some level that class is a factor in the accusations. But as the film progresses, she begins to wonder if she’s protecting him because she “understands” his actions in a way no one else could. It’s a fascinating connection to make, especially considering what their relationship looks like to the outside world. Pascal’s aforementioned record reveals a history of a violence towards a young woman. Moll’s history reveals the same, but the context is different. Pascal is an alleged abuser, whereas Moll is simply troubled, insecure and unstable. And yet Moll, and by extension the film, seems to view them as two sides of the same coin.
What’s exciting about Beast is that it isn’t as cut-and-dry as the plot would suggest. What could be a simple tale of the rich of looking down on the poor and only one woman having the empathy to see the politics at play becomes much more muddled in the end. It goes beyond the class analysis to explore the pure impulse of violence, and the guilt that comes with it. Beast suggests there’s a sense of kinship between perpetrators of violence. The bond of those impulses seems to be much stronger than that of romantic love. Beast suggests a physical magnetism between those who are “wild”–unable to remain in civilized society. On the outset of the film, I assumed that the titular “Beast” was Pascal, but near the end, I began to believe the title was more in reference to an impulse rather than a specific character.
The best thing about Beast is how seriously it takes itself. It is a film born of pulp full of romance, murder and raw sexuality. Still, it takes the psychological states of its leads quite seriously and there are several scenes that provide viewers with insight as to who they really are beyond what we are shown of them. A later scene in a police station where Moll is being questioned by an older female cop (Olwen Fouéré) is a highlight. Another scene where Moll goes to confront her childhood bully is heartbreaking on several levels. This may be writer/director Michael Pearce’s first feature, but he knows what he’s doing. He knows how to build tension as he draws out a scene, constantly keeping viewers off-balance and unsure.
Beast is a thrilling film, keeping me on the edge of my seat until the very last second. Despite a small sense of ending fatigue, it was one of the best moviegoing experiences I’ve had all year. I yearn for modern filmmakers to continue to mine the pure gold that is the sweeping romantic thriller. Though it’s somewhat vintage now, it remains exhilarating and emotionally effective storytelling. For a fan of the genre, Beast is not to be missed.