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Richly Atmospheric 'Beast' Is A Thriller That Outshines Its Genre


This is FRESH AIR. The new thriller "Beast" marks the feature debut of the writer-director Michael Pearce. It stars the Irish breakout Jessie Buckley of the BBC miniseries "War & Peace" and Johnny Flynn as two people drawn together on the British island of Jersey, where a serial killer has been terrorizing the residents. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The title of the richly atmospheric psychological thriller "Beast" is one of the movie's many mysteries. Does it refer to Moll Huntford, the black sheep of a stuffy middle - class family on the island of Jersey? Or is it Pascal Renouf, the scruffily handsome handyman she finds herself falling in love with despite her family's vocal disapproval? Perhaps the beast is whoever has been murdering young women on the island in recent months, a plot hook that prepares you for a different kind of movie than the one the writer-director Michael Pearce has in store. "Beast" is tense and engrossing from start to finish, but its genre trappings, harrowing though they are, might be the least compelling thing about it. At its core, the movie is a tale of two misfits rebelling against a society that has little use for them. The setting feels so vividly drawn, and the actors have so much dangerous chemistry. You get the sense that Pearce could have made the story work even without a serial killer looming in the background.

Moll, played superbly by Jessie Buckley, is a ginger-haired woman in her 20s whose face can light up with pleasure one minute only to disintegrate into anguish the next. She has a dull job as a bus tour guide and spends much of her time taking care of her ailing father. Her intensely critical mother Hilary, played by an icy Geraldine James, keeps Moll on a tight leash, especially compared with her two other siblings. When Moll is upstaged at her own birthday party, she escapes and stays out all night drinking and dancing, only to return home the next morning to confront Hilary.


GERALDINE JAMES: (As Hilary) You're safe. I was worried sick. What happened?


JAMES: (As Hilary) Come here. I won't bite.

BUCKLEY: (As Moll) I felt funny, so I went for a walk. And I fell asleep on the beach.

JAMES: (As Hilary) I thought we were best friends.

BUCKLEY: (As Moll) We are.

JAMES: (As Hilary) Then don't lie to me.

BUCKLEY: (As Moll) I just wanted to go dancing.

JAMES: (As Hilary) I put all that effort into making it special, and you wanted to go dancing.

BUCKLEY: (As Moll) So sorry, Mom. It was irresponsible and thoughtless.

JAMES: (As Hilary) You've come so far, Moll. I worry when things like this happen.

BUCKLEY: (As Moll) It won't happen again. I promise.

JAMES: (As Hilary) It was your birthday. We'll let this one go.

CHANG: What her mother doesn't realize is that during her night out, Moll has already met Pascal. Played by Johnny Flynn, he's a loner who mostly lives off the land, wandering the countryside with a rifle that he uses to shoot rabbits. From the moment they meet, these two outsiders seem to get each other in a way that no one else does. When Moll brings Pascal over to do a few jobs around the house, her mother's disgust is total and unambiguous, which, if anything, only makes the two of them fall even harder and faster in love. Flynn gives Pascal a reckless impudence, reveling in his status as the ne'er-do-well boyfriend. He's the kind of guy who tracks mud on the carpet and wears jeans to a fancy country club party.

Moll and Pascal are much more in their element outdoors, especially when they're making love against the scenic wind-battered landscape. That shared wild streak is what makes "Beast" so bracing and, up to a point, unpredictable. Pearce, making a terrific writing/directing debut, has a knack for ambiguity, for toying with our expectations. It's not exactly surprising when the police finger Pascal as a suspect in the serial killer investigation, especially when he turns out to have a criminal record. But Moll has her own disturbingly violent history, one that makes even her mother's domineering behavior seem understandable in retrospect.

At times, "Beast" makes us privy to Moll's nightmares in scenes that are scarily effective, if more than a little derivative. The movie's stylistic flair doesn't quite overcome some of its more familiar devices, from its sly subversion of the "Beauty And The Beast" fairy tale to its too-obvious themes of duality. Even still, it's Buckley's wrenching performance that keeps you watching even as the story plunges into its harrowing over-plotted final stretch. Her acting, so fragile and yet so ferocious, is something close to revelatory. You may walk out still wondering whodunit. But an even more pressing question might also spring to mind - who is she?

GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Annette Bening, who's best-known for her performances in "The Grifters," "American Beauty," "The Kids Are All Right" and "20th Century Women." She's in her late 50s, an age when it's often difficult for actresses to find good roles. But this has been a great period in Bening's career. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Challoner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.


Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.