Killer whales are fascinating creatures. They can travel 100 miles a day in the ocean, we’re told, but in captivity that energy becomes destructive. Their sound waves bounce of the walls, and they become deaf and dumb, sometimes insane.
Two such constrained creatures find each other with devastating consequence in “Beast,” an assured debut feature film from British writer and director Michael Pearce. The story has the trappings of a sleeping-with-the-enemy-style thriller: girl meets boy, boy might be serial killer, etc. But the dark nail-biter eschews the obvious at every turn and is less a whodunit than a twisted moral meditation grounded by its mesmerizing leading lady.
The claustrophobic tale is set on the English Channel island Jersey, a beautiful, tourist-laden locale where all roads lead to the ocean. Paradise to some but a prison for Moll (Jessie Buckley), a fiery-headed, 20-something tour guide still stuck at home, where she helps care for her ailing father. Moll feels like one of those captive whales, constantly observed by her icy and domineering mother. “You’ve come so far, Moll,” she says, hinting at some past trauma. “Beast” is stingy with the details, frustratingly at times but to powerful cumulative effect. From the start Moll is vibrating with so much dark energy if feels like the slightest rip will tear her wide open and send her demons screaming from the void.
That broken family dynamic sends Moll fleeing from her own birthday party to the nearest bar, where a long night of drinking nearly ends in assault on the beach before she’s rescued by a passerby. Pascal (Johnny Flynn) is an unlikely hero, rangy and half-feral, a rifle slung over one shoulder and bloody game festering in the backseat of his jeep. But the two share instant animal attraction. Pascal’s handsomely scarred face and dirty fingernails couldn’t be anymore at odds with her uptight family’s tidy country-club aesthetic, but then that’s his appeal.
That their courtship coincides with the highly publicized abduction and murder of a teenage girl — the latest in a string on the besieged island — doesn’t strike Moll as meaningful at first. But as the coincidences add up and the warning signals blare louder, Moll has to consider that this boy who so seemed like respite might be another bar on her prison cell.
“Beast” has a few minor missteps that betray its novice filmmaker: recurring dream sequences that pull the rug out from under the viewer, a change in dynamic between Moll and Pascal so abrupt it feels like impatience to reach the story’s final act. But on the whole it’s a remarkably controlled exercise. It’s to the film’s credit that Moll is the center of attention from start to finish, and not even a romantically damaged bad boy can steal the spotlight from her barely contained wildfire of emotions.
The tawdrier details are never the point of “Beast,” but rather Moll’s struggle to find her moral footing on slippery ground. And as we sympathize with Moll and contend with the subtle shifts in who we root for and why, the more that struggle becomes our own.
Roadside Attractions presents a film written and directed by Michael Pearce. Rated R (for disturbing violent content, language and some sexuality). Running time: 107 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.
Barbara VanDenburgh/USA Today network