Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Movie Review: Beast

Beast **** / *****
Directed by: Michael Pearce   
Written by: Michael Pearce.
Starring: Jessie Buckley (Moll), Johnny Flynn (Pascal Renouf), Geraldine James (Hilary Huntington), Trystan Gravelle (Clifford), Olwen Fouéré (Theresa Kelly), Charley Palmer Rothwell (Leigh Dutot), Shannon Tarbet (Polly).
Who is the Beast in the movie Beast? When you start watching the film, and see it is about a beautiful young woman, from a wealthy family named Moll (Jessie Buckley), who falls for a man from the wrong side of the tracks, Pascal (Johnny Flynn) who is also a suspect in a string of murders of young women you think you know where it is headed. Yet, from the beginning, there is something off about Moll as well. The way she stands apart from her own birthday party, the way she can be brought low by a single comment by her domineering mother, the way she doesn’t just fall in love with Pascal, but looks at him with hunger that could be lust, but feels somehow more animalistic, you are not quite sure. Who is the predator and who is the prey here?
Beast takes place on the beautiful island of Jersey – which gives the film a gorgeous backdrop on which to paint some truly disturbing things. Moll is a little older than we first think – in her mid-20s, not earlier than that. She lives with her parents – she says it’s to take care of her father who has Alzheimer’s. She works as one of those tour bus guides – taking old people around the island to sample wine and see the sites. At that party that opens the film, she is approached by an old friend – Clifford (Trystan Gravelle) – a cop, who clearly wants to be more than just a friend. When her sister upstages the party by announcing she is pregnant with twins, Moll doesn’t react well – downing shots of vodka, before cutting her hand – deliberately – on broken glass, and heading into town where she meets a man at the club and dances all night. The next morning, out in the wilderness, he won’t take no for an answer. That’s when she first meets Pascal, who defuses the situation and drives her home. She won’t be the same again.
Beast is a movie that withholds a lot of information from the audience as it progresses – but not in a cheap way. I get annoyed by movies that basically announce they have a secret they are keeping, and then spring it in the last act as a way to shock the audience. The way information in Beast is doled out makes more sense – it has to do with the dark family secrets we don’t much talk about, the lies we tell ourselves and each other, in order to function peacefully. As we watch Moll’s mother, Hilary (Geraldine James, in a terrifically chilling performance) and the way she is able to cut her daughter down with one perfectly timed passive aggressive comment, we think of her as a monster. And perhaps she is – because as the film moves along, you also cannot help but think she has a point. Clifford is in some respects the same way – he fixates on Pascal in part because he has the girl Clifford always wanted – and in his final meeting with Moll he perfects the act of those petulant man children who bemoan the fact that women don’t like nice guys like him, when in fact they don’t like him because he isn’t a nice guy at all. And yet, doesn’t he have a point in suspecting Pascal anyway?
The movie though is at its best when it focuses on Moll and Pascal – who we sense from the start are two damaged people, who somehow fit together. They are kind of the prototypical couple in a costume drama – the refined girl from the upper class and the rough man who works with his hands, and tracks dirt into the house without noticing. Theirs, of course, could be a great romance. But there is something much more animalistic about the way these two observe each other – the way they talk and flirt, and eventually have sex – they look ready to devour each other that makes you think of something far darker.
The police procedural parts of Beast are fairly standard – although there is a terrific interrogation of Moll by a veteran female detective (Olwen Fouéré). I’m also not quite sure of the ending of the film, which strikes me more of an ending of someone who wanted to give the film a definitive ending, instead of embracing the natural ambiguity the story seems to lend itself to. Still, this is the debut film of writer/director Michael Pearce, and it is a remarkably assured debut feature – beautiful and disturbing in equal measure. And the best thing about it is the performance by Jessie Buckley – an actress previously unknown to me, but who should become a star based on her work her. She goes to truly weird, strange, uncomfortable places – and embraces them all. Even if the movie falters once or twice, her performance never does – making Beast one of the more surprising films of the year.

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