As the Avengers swarm into every screen known to mankind this weekend, elsewhere a British director makes a strong debut with a suspenseful thriller called Beast that showcases everything great about UK cinema.
Director Michael Pearce had previously picked up a BAFTA nomination for his 2013 short Keeping Up With The Joneses and his first full-length film further cements him as someone to watch in the years to come. The same can also be said about two superb lead performances from Jessie Buckley (Taboo) and Johnny Flynn, who immerse themselves inside Pearce’s script to emerge with two fascinating characters.
Set on the island of Jersey, Beast manages to subvert the usual expectations that come with the serial killer territory, making straying closer to something like Terrence Malick’s Badlands rather than Oliver Stone’s hyperactive Natural Born Killers.
Buckley plays Moll, a 27-year-old woman still living at home with her overbearing mother Hilary (Geraldine James). The reasons for her strict approach become clearer the more we understand about her daughter’s past but when we first meet Moll she is slowly drowning in the drabness of her isolated community.
The appearance of a mysterious and aggressive stranger named Pascal (Flynn) adds a sense of excitement and danger to her life, slowly filling her with enough confidence to stand up to her mother and family. Elsewhere the police are going in circles struggling to track down a serial killer who has brutally murdered a number of local young women.
Eventually, the finger of suspicion falls upon Pascal who is an outsider on the island, but it only serves to intensify Moll’s affection for her grubby looking boyfriend even if he could potentially be the murderer. Yet perhaps things aren’t as simple as they seem with director Pearce keeping us hooked into the gradual pressure threatening to erupt from deep within Moll.
Their relationship mostly serves as the foundation to delve further into Moll’s fragile psyche which can no longer paper over the cracks that have been ignored for so long. Buckley’s subtle approach creates a complex personality that veers from vulnerable to enraged, a woman ready to take on the world even if it ultimately means doing so alone.
Flynn displays an enigmatic on-screen charisma that makes it easy to see why Moll has become so enamoured with her new man. Where it would be easy to overplay many of Pascal’s shadowy traits Flynn remains restrained enough to keep us guessing until the very last.
Quite who is leading who towards the darkness becomes less clear the more we get to know Moll and Pascal and Pearce tantalisingly plays with their motivations and our own willingness to put our faith into either one.
There is a fairytale-like edge to his story that lends itself more towards the Brothers Grimm than Hans-Christian Anderson thanks to the final sting it has in its tail. The beast alluded to in the title can be seen in any number of the people we meet in Jersey and it’s left to us to decide who has the hardest bite.