Occasionally, it’s good to cleanse the blockbuster palette with a smaller movie that you’ve never heard of before, never saw a trailer for, and don’t know any of the actors involved. Sometimes, these types of movies can be brilliant pieces of thought-provoking art; other times, they’re mind-numbing snooze-fests. Beast, a British import filmed in and around the UK and distributed across the pond in 2017 (and originally titled Jersey Affair), falls somewhere between these two extremes. It has some very quiet, eloquent moments that keep you invested in the mystery that surrounds the plight of the characters, and yet, because its pace can be a bit on the slow side, and its message so subtle as to become confusing, it’s far more frustrating than exhilarating.
Moll (Jessie Buckley) is a lonely girl trapped in a small community in the Channel Islands, fighting a past she can’t seem to escape. Not physically, mind you, but mentally. She’s an obedient daughter who helps her controlling mother (Geraldine James) take care of her ailing father, but burns with the desire to flee her mundane shackles and fly free. That opportunity arises when she meets Pascal (Johnny Flynn), another seemingly lonely person who compliments Moll with a sense of intrigue and adventure. But as the two fall deeply in love, the couple gets tangled up in a murder investigation, turning the community, including Moll’s family, against them both, forcing Moll to decide what she wants more — the love of adventure or the love of a family who has all but abandoned her.
The intrigue in the movie doesn’t stem from the mystery of who killed a series of girls (which takes a backseat for the majority of the film), but from who Moll is and how her world has and will continue to shape her. She is a troubled young woman, evidenced by her need to cut herself in order to feel anything (or at the very least, relieve the pain and stress of her inattentive family). When she first meets Pascal, he says, “You’re wounded. I can help you with that.” On the surface, this simple line is nothing but someone helping patch a cut on someone else. On a deeper level, it’s as if Pascal can see deep within Moll’s soul. She’s a wounded bird, and if she allows him in, he will help her fly again.
The love affair between the two begins innocent enough, but as the investigation points toward Pascal as the sole person of interest, Moll learns things about him that she was previously unaware of; but by then, she’s already too deep within him to let him go. His presence has opened her up in a way that pushes her to defy her family’s wishes and support him with nothing more than faith. It’s a love steeped in freedom — he allows her to be who she really is, as opposed to who society wants her to become.
This inner turmoil stems from an incident when she was younger that is only shown through psychological breaks in Moll’s dreams. She tries so desperately to escape this past, yet being around Pascal has unconsciously brought that part of her back to the surface. What this reveals is that the beast of the title isn’t necessarily Pascal for being accused of murder. It could also be Moll, or even the community that surrounds her, forcing her to live as they do and believe a story that fits their personal narrative. Or, it could very well be all three, attacking one another in both physical and mental ways.
It’s the murder mystery that brings the film crumbling down around itself. As little plot as there may be, for a psychological thriller like this to work properly, we need to be as invested in that plot as much as we are in the characters. With Beast, we’re given so little of the investigation that it becomes more of a nuisance; a little gnat reminding you of something more that never truly rises to the occasion. And because this aspect is so hidden in the shadows of the overall narrative, it’s hard to connect to the plight of the characters as they traverse through the muddy waters of these terrible acts. To know and understand these two characters fully, we need to know why the investigation is pointing its finger at Pascal, so we can understand and empathize with both he and Moll. Because I never felt that, by the time the third act rolls around, choices and character motivations aren’t as heightened as they should be.
Some of the acting choices are another hindrance on the film. Though Buckley does a good job fighting her demons in a subtle, depressive way, I never bought her feelings for Pascal. Not because of her, but because of Flynn. He was okay, but nothing about his performance gave me reason to believe that these two had any real chemistry. And perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps the two were never meant to have chemistry; that their love was false from the get-go and they were pushing something that was never there in the first place. It happens, but for the end of this film to have any real emotional impact, I needed to feel something between the two that never seemed to materialize.
Maybe this disconnect has to do with some of the directing choices as well. I felt distanced from the film, wholly based on how director Michael Pearce configured a moment. There are a lot of times we see characters (most often, Moll) just staring at something that we never get to see. It’s a stylistic choice that does work on one level (showing us that these people are in someways mad), but on another level is utterly frustrating. And that in itself describes Beast as a whole — there’s a quality of madness to the film that keeps you intrigued in what’s happening, but ultimately devolves into a heap of disappointment as it could have been so much more than it delivers.
My Grade: B
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Next week, new movies include Ocean’s 8, Hereditary and Hotel Artemis. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.