When a scruffy, mud-flecked boy tenderly takes your hand and says, “You’re wounded, I can fix that,” who wouldn’t want to believe him? If you’ve been derided and controlled by a cold mother, made to feel wicked and different all your life, nothing is going to stop you from falling in love with that boy, even though he carries a rifle and girls have been disappearing from your small seaside town. Such a twisted romance is the black beating heart of “Beast,” a tightly wound mystery with a grisly dilemma at its core. How far would you delude yourself for love, for the feeling of being seen, for the intoxicating smell of a person?
The feature-length debut of British filmmaker Michael Pearce, “Beast” follows a young woman named Moll (Jessie Buckley), a fiery redhead with a troubled past living in a secluded English village. The film opens with the haunting hymns of the church choir, led by Moll’s mother (Geraldine James), a fearful and rigid woman who mistakes autonomy for selfishness. “Moll, I need more from you,” her mother says, in what will become her recurring demand. At her quaint backyard birthday party, Moll’s sister (Shannon Tarbet) calls her “someone very special, someone we can all rely on,” before announcing her own pregnancy. Upstaged and bored, Moll escapes to the club in her pastel yellow birthday dress. When a stranger makes unwanted advances on the beach, he is stopped dead in his tracks by a stray rock to the head. A mysterious figure emerges from the dunes, rifle in hand.
This is the conspicuously named Pascal Renouf (Johnny Flynn), an orphan who claims his local heritage runs deep. The young misfits are immediately drawn to each other, though Moll’s mother is repulsed by his stench. Moll says she likes the way he smells, and invites Pascal to do some work around the house. The family is wary of outsiders, especially considering the brutal string of murders that has plagued the town, with no sign of a culprit. As Moll and Pascal’s relationship deepens, so do the town’s suspicions.
When Clifford (Trystan Gravelle), a detective with a thing for Moll, questions her about the night she met Pascal, she instinctively lies and says she met him at the club. Pascal has a record, he explains, and spent time in prison for assaulting a 14-year-old girl. When Moll confronts Pascal, he is upset that she would believe such things about him, and explains the relationship was consensual. With his smile and blue eyes, you want to believe him just as much as Moll does, but something darker is roiling below the surface.
Flynn is erratic and charming as Pascal: With his greasy blonde hair and a lean but imposing figure, you can practically smell him through the frame. He brought the same intensity to young Albert Einstein in season 1 of “Genius,” though he is much more menacing here. Buckley calls to mind a more-intense Kate Mara, able to play the endangered girl with a blend of innocence and grit. Her bright red curls pop against the dull beiges and blues of her oppressive surroundings. She seems much more at home amidst the greens of the wilderness that Pascal prefers to roam. After their first romp in the dirt, she sits indelicately on her mother’s pristine couch, her legs splayed wide like a man’s. She sinks down as if after a hard day’s work, her dirty fingernails scratching the upholstery with a grating sound. James is rigid as Moll’s constant foil, unwavering in her cruelty and commitment to propriety. Considering the options, it’s no wonder Moll seeks refuge in Pascal.
“Beast” walks the line between taut psychological thriller and doomed genre romance, smartly remaining laser-focused on Moll and her fraying sanity. Pearce creates a bleak world, and it’s not necessarily a fun one to visit. The brutality barely lets up, even during Pascal and Moll’s love scenes, but the film throttles toward its chilling climax with conviction. It’s not easy to create such convincing moral ambiguity, and Moll’s ultimate dilemma is truly terrifying. “Beast” unearths the beast within, and churns out a violent conclusion that will shake you to the core.
“Beast” is playing in theaters now.