(Michael Pearce, UK, 2017)

BY STEVEN MEARS | October 31, 2021

B east is a lot of movies in one package—fractured fairy tale, belated-coming-of-age story, psychological drama, regional horror film—but above all it’s a calling card for its leading lady, Jessie Buckley. Known at the time of its 2017 release as a former contestant on a BBC talent show and a supporting player in a pair of period miniseries (War & Peace and Taboo), the 27-year-old Irish actress announced herself with a performance of such hellfire intensity and unnerving fragility as to rate comparison with another breakout ingénue, Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby.

Set on the island of Jersey in the English Channel, a locale rendered as remote and fraught with menace as Summerisle in The Wicker Man, writer-director and Jersey native Michael Pearce’s Beast unblinkingly regards Moll (Buckley), a stunted young woman who listlessly leads bus tours and resides with her well-heeled family, occupying the roles of caregiver and black sheep. Rescued from assault on the beach by rough-hewn hunter Pascal (musician Johnny Flynn), this nominally adult Red Riding Hood finds herself drawn to her antisocial savior, especially as their romance vexes her elitist family. But when Pascal emerges as the chief suspect in a string of heinous crimes involving local teenage girls, the film declines to offer a simple update of Hitchcock’s Suspicion, in which the sheltered Moll fears her charismatic lover may have more than animal blood on his hands; instead, it suggests his status as an unstable element and potential violent criminal might be key to the attraction. After all, she once attacked a classmate with scissors in what may or may not have been self-defense.

Beast is horror of the most insidious stripe, introducing a hermetic world for Moll that begs to be shattered and then tempting her (and us) with the primal alternative. The cinematography by Benjamin Kračun (Promising Young Woman) establishes the setting as just as liminal (between England and France, domestic and rustic, inviting and terrifying) as its metamorphosing heroine. Pearce mirrors and escalates Moll’s conundrum in a series of dream sequences, including a home invasion where she shifts from victim to assailant, begging the question: to which character does the title refer?

As provocative as these themes are, they’re hardly untrodden ground, but what makes the film linger is Buckley’s heedlessly committed performance. Unsteadily self-contained in the early scenes—investing ominous significance in the removal of an errant hair from her neck, the only control over her person she’s permitted to exercise—she enacts Moll’s responses to her rapidly shifting reality with feral abandon, maintaining a tantalizing ambiguity over what she thinks of Pascal and how her suspicions compel her, while grounding the character in a sudden, long-overdue refusal to be governed by anyone. Serial killers on the heath are abundant in cinema; star-making turns like this one are as rare and far-flung as islands in the sea. 🩸

A girl in furs hold a handmade spear

is the copy editor for Field of Vision’s online journal Field Notes and for Film Comment magazine, as well as a frequent contributor to Film Comment, Metrograph’s Journal, and other publications. He wrote a thesis on depictions of old age in American cinema.

TWITTER: @mearsontap

How to see Beast

The film is also available on Blu-ray and DVD from Lionsgate.
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