For his debut feature, the chilling psychological thriller “Beast,” British director Michael Pearce turned to the true crime lore of his hometown — the island of Jersey, a self-governing dependency of the United Kingdom located off the coast of France. In the 1960s, a serial rapist known as the “Beast of Jersey” snuck into homes, wearing a mask, and attacked women and children. Using the tale as a source of inspiration, Pearce’s film isn’t a direct retelling, but an exploration of a relationship dynamic between two people who tread to the edge of the darker side of life.
Pearce’s point of view brings the ease of a local to “Beast.” There’s naturalism in depicting this place, a far-flung, small community nestled between two cultures, French and English. Our heroine, Moll (Jessie Buckley), strains against the limits of her life there. With ruthlessly efficient exposition, Pearce illustrates just how unhappy she is with the people around her: her controlling mother (Geraldine James), her constantly upstaging sister, Polly (Shannon Tarbet), the desperate young police cadet, Clifford (Trystan Gravelle), who pathetically pursues her. At her birthday party, Moll mulls the nature of killer whales in captivity before she dashes off to the pub for a night of anonymous, drunken oblivion.
When Moll’s pub companion presses himself on her in the early hours of the morning, he’s scared off by a hunter, Pascal (Johnny Flynn), poaching rabbits in the field. Soon Moll has fallen for this quiet, feral man, who brings her books about wild animals and sweeps her off her feet, despite the protestations of her proper mum.
But Moll, she’s a wild one. Her sister Polly even warns Pascal about Moll’s dark past, having been expelled from school for a violent attack on a bully. But love rarely heeds warnings, and Moll and Pascal fall headlong into each other, making love in the fields and romping in the waves, even while young girls are going missing and turning up dead at the hands of a murderer.
The film is a showcase for Buckley’s astonishing performance. She grows from a repressed young woman, cowed by the enforced proprieties of her home, into a free, liberated creature. But how much freedom is too much for Moll? She’s tormented by violent nightmares, exacerbated by the ongoing investigation into the murdered girls, in which Pascal has become a prime suspect. Is there anything to the case, or is it simply prejudice and jealousy that drives the spurned Clifford to zero in on him? Regardless of the truth, Moll lies to protect her lover, easily and instinctually.
The internal and external pressures prove too much, but as Moll breaks down, we’re never quite sure of what’s real. With the assured script and deft direction from Pearce, along with Buckley’s complex and nuanced performance, we never know what’s actually going on in her head. Flynn is also skillfully opaque as the mysterious Pascal, a man seemingly borne of the sea and earth of Jersey, the island as steeped in him as he is in it.
Using the real crimes of the Beast of Jersey as a thematic landscape upon which to explore the ways in which madness does or does not reveal itself in a romantic relationship isn’t just an inspired premise for Pearce’s film. It seems almost like catharsis for the native son, who grew up with warnings of the boogeyman on this isolated island. What we discover is sometimes, the boogeyman’s inside us too.