Moll (Buckley) is a twenty-seven-year old tour guide living in a quiet suburb in Jersey. Patronised by her controlling mother (James) and used as a doormat by her siblings, when we first meet the sullen Moll she has been chipped away to nothing: no confidence, no voice. And yet the desire to set fire to the world hasn’t been entirely quenched and she veers towards the weird loner, hunky rebel Pascal (Flynn). But when young girls begin to go missing, later turning up in shallow graves, and would-be suitor Clifford (Gravelle) warning Moll that Pascal has a history of violence, Moll begins to have doubts about the romance…
That synopsis gives one the impression that this is a plot driven experience but Beast, the feature length debut from writer-director Michael Pearce is really a character study. And Moll presents a disturbing and compelling character. The reasons for her sullen and detached mood can be traced back to an incident in school when Moll attacked a bully with a scissors, an episode that still haunts her dreams, and she was expelled; the tragedy goes some way to explaining the source of tension between her and her mother: Moll had to be home schooled by her mother (a wonderful James) who had to halt her singing career as a result.
Pearce’s deft writing sets Moll up so well we can believe this quiet, reserved woman would be attracted to Pascal’s aloof stranger. It’s the little things like having a barbeque for her birthday but mum only brings out the champagne when her sister announces she’s pregnant. She doesn’t count, the action says, and will always play second fiddle. Pascal sees the dormant energy inside her and there’s an unspoken understanding between them. The Smashing Pumpkins line, “The killer in me is the killer in you” was never more apt than for these two dangerous outsiders. Pearce also skilfully foreshadows the trouble ahead - the dead rabbit in the truck, the bloodied owl in the field – quietly raising the tension throughout.
If there’s a flaw in Beast it’s the unsure portrayal of Pascal. Flynn does what he can, doing his best moody Ryan Gosling impression, but his Pascal moves and talks like he’s pulled from a Shangri-Las song: he rolls dry tobacco in liquorice papers, lights up in the house, and drags muck across the carpet without a care in the world. He’s your classic fifties rebel, ruffling the feathers of this suburban family that has notions of itself. The only thing missing is a motorbike.
But any time Buckley is on screen the eye is drawn to her. Making her debut in a leading role, Buckley is very impressive, subtly showing first her nervous disposition, then her growing confidence, followed by her descent into madness as Pascal’s influence takes hold. It’s a remarkable turn by the unknown.
Going by its final memorable shot, Beast plays out like a prequel to a film we’ll probably never see but Pearce should think long and hard about abandoning what he’s set up here, especially if he can convince Buckley to return.