Inspired by the notorious 1960s Beast of Jersey case, Michael Pearce’s tense psychological thriller centres on the search for a serial killer who is murdering young women in Jersey’s isolated island community. The seemingly idyllic island is immediately established as a place of danger, as the film’s opening scene offers close-up images of the murdered girls’ shallow graves. These images imbue the film with a sense of unease and menace that remains until the very end.
The film follows the life of 27-year old Moll (Jessie Buckley), who is trapped between her oppressive home life with her controlling mother, and a yearning to escape and start a new life far away from the island. Moll’s domestic oppression is repeatedly contrasted with the vast, open landscapes of the island and surrounding sea. Moll considers herself akin to a killer whale trapped in captivity, a trapped soul longing for escape from the claustrophobia of island life.
However, Moll’s life changes irrevocably when she is saved from assault by a mysterious stranger, Pascal (Johnny Flynn). Although Pascal and Moll are seeming opposites – he is a rebellious figure who smokes in her house while she is the product of a deeply traditional upbringing – he and Moll strike an instant connection. As she later tells him, “we’re the same, you and me”. Pascal aids Moll in unleashing the inner beasts that have lurked within her since her teenage years. The two spend the majority of their time together in nature.
Alone on the Jersey beaches, Moll begins to feel free, throwing off the shackles of her traditional upbringing under Pascal’s tutelage. Like the ‘beasts’ of the natural world, Moll too is revealed to be a wild creature, as elements of her increasingly dark past are revealed, and questions are raised as to just how reliable and innocent a protagonist she is.
Indeed, Pascal is warned by one of Moll’s old school friends to “watch your step, Moll’s a wild one”. Although Pascal’s influence helps to unleash this new side to Moll, the question that hovers over all of his and Moll’s encounters is whether his feelings for her are authentic, or whether he is in fact hunting her like the animals that he poaches in the forest. To this end, Pearce employs an array of fairy tale motifs to explore the different aspects of Moll and Pascal’s relationship – most notably, when they first spend a night in the woods together, as Pascal encourages her to stray off the path with him into the dark, wild forest vegetation. As they walk into this darkness together, the audience is left anticipating what manner of beasts lie in wait within this forest, and questioning whether Pascal will prove to be Moll’s ‘prince charming’ or a ‘big bad wolf’ leading her into his lair.
When Pascal becomes chief suspect in the murder investigation, Moll must decide what, and who, to believe, as Pearce’s finely crafted plot makes the audience constantly question who can be trusted in this haunting narrative. Beast has all the virtues of an independent film – inventive visuals, fine acting, and an original story – with few of the flaws. It is well worth a cinema trip in the next few weeks.