Michael Pearce’s Beast is inspired by the life of Edward Paisnel, dubbed the Beast of Jersey, a serial rapist active between 1960 and 1971. This is not your standard true-crime thriller, however; far from a procedural, Pearce is more interested in psychological portraiture, centering his fictional story around Moll (Jessie Buckley), a young girl with a violent past, who has been homeschooled by her strict, controlling mother. Feeling isolated and trapped, she flees her own birthday party and randomly meets Pascal (Johnny Flynn), a rough but attractive local boy, who takes an interest in her. The attraction is mutual, and the two eventually fall in love.
He might be a serial killer. She might be able to relate.
Pearce engineers and sustains most of the film’s dramatic tension with two mysteries, one to each of his main characters. The first mystery concerns Moll and her violent past. After a couple of dream sequences, we learn Moll stabbed a classmate with a pair of scissors when she was younger. She claims she was bullied and it was self-defense, but she was nevertheless expelled from school. Along the way, the film drops hints that Moll may have initiated the attack on her classmate, and maybe even wanted to kill her. The other mystery drives the main plot and concerns Pascal and the identity of the serial killer. Pascal has his own violent past and becomes a prime suspect in the killings. The possibility of Pascal’s guilt forces Moll to examine her own past and pushes her into conflict with the rest of the community.
The mysteries lurking at the heart of Beast are compelling but unfortunately harm the film in the long run. The movie routinely ignores opportunities to explore its themes more thoroughly, or even mine thematic material from the true crime story that inspired it, focusing instead on a game of keep-away, dangling answers in front of the audience and then delaying them (not to mention the blatant misdirects via dream sequences). The first mystery reduces psychological complexity, sending Moll through a series of encounters that drip-feed clues about her past and clumsily telegraph the “correct” answer, turning her arc into something more like a scavenger hunt than a character study. The second mystery reduces moral complexity since it requires the audience to believe that Pascal could be the serial killer even if he is not. As such, Pearce stacks the deck against him. Pascal is a dangerous man, violent and unstable, and raped a fourteen-year-old girl. After multiple false endings and a last-ditch effort for ambiguity, the question of his guilt no longer matters; he’s just a bad guy, plain and simple.
And it’s the resolution of that second mystery that harms the film the most. To elaborate, the original Beast of Jersey case caused mass hysteria. The police had a few suspects at first, and the name of one, Alphonse Le Gastelois, was eventually made public. The police had the wrong man, but the community of Jersey didn’t care; they demanded recompense in blood, a sacrifice to appease the god of their fears and uncertainties, and any scapegoat would suffice. They burned Le Gastelois’ house to the ground and chased him into exile (he would not return to Jersey even after Paisnel’s capture).Pearce uses this hysteria as the foundation for the film’s second act, during which Moll tries to defend Pascal from accusations while the community harasses her and Pascal for his presumed guilt. One of the twists waiting in the third act will bury this plot thread, however; and the pretense of ambiguity with which Pearce attempts to end his story will discard any insight into these themes as quickly as the film can cut to black.
The film needs the case against Pascal to be so convincing that the community’s hysteria necessarily proves well-founded. There was a better film waiting to be explored here, but everything has to point in the same direction for the third act to work, and all of the film’s plot machinations subsequently look creaky and cliché.
The third act might have worked if the portrait of Moll was convincing, but the film’s success here is intermittent. To the extent that it works, it’s largely because of Buckley, who gives a commanding performance, and her chemistry with Flynn, who gives his character just enough warmth and edge to keep the mystery running. There is only so much Buckley can do, though, and Pearce’s sudden play for ambiguity is confused. I don’t think the ending is actually ambiguous: I would like to give the film the benefit of the doubt, but given how clumsily the film telegraphs the actual details of Moll’s past, I see no reason not to take the finale at face value. But even if I didn’t, I’m not convinced anything would change. The film ends before Moll has to live with the consequences of her decisions, and so the only thing the film leaves for the audience is another question (are Moll and Pascal the same?) with an obvious answer (no).
Beast isn’t a bad film; for a feature debut, I’d say it’s promising. The cast is the strongest element of the film, but Pearce also does some good work behind the camera. Some of his visuals are strong, even if his metaphors are usually heavy-handed. The part of the film that most betrays his amateur status is the musical score, specifically how it is overused, blatantly acting like cue cards for emotional responses. But what ultimately hampers Beast is a classic staple of bad independent, or arthouse, cinema: conflating ambiguity with profundity. Beast is just too single-minded in preserving its mysteries until the bitter end, despite those mysteries having obvious and limited destinations; and the end result is a shallow film where, by the end, I found I just didn’t care anymore.