The heroine of “Beast,” a young Englishwoman named Moll, is obviously troubled, and she falls for a flagrantly troubled man named Pascal. This prompts her very proper sister to ask, “What is it about him?” Moll answers instantly: “His smell.” We have to take her judgment on faith, since Smell-O- Vision movies never did catch on. But other senses tell us that these two will make a volatile couple, and that they’re played by a pair of exceptional actors, Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn. This formidably accomplished debut feature by Michael Pearce takes us down familiar paths into a darkness all its own.
The setting is the island of Jersey, in the English Channel near the coast of Normandy. Pascal claims to be descended from Norman noblemen, though nobility isn’t the first thing you think of when you see this handyman with rough hands and bedroom eyes. He’s a perfect fit for the mysterious serial killer who’s been stalking the island.
Is Pascal really the beast of the title? Moll may suspect so, and may not care; she has violence in her past, a deep streak of self- destructiveness and a voracious appetite for danger. In the hands of a less skillful actress—although skill barely hints at Jessie Buckley’s quicksilver presence—Moll might have been an anthology of conflicts and symptoms. Instead, she’s a flesh-and- blood beauty, from a prosperous family, trying urgently, if dangerously, to find the love that will make her whole. Her haughty, flint-hearted mother is played by the superb Geraldine James, and the mother has one of the film’s most chilling lines: “Maybe I’ve been too soft on you.”
I suppose the film is too long; it certainly indulges in a couple of silly contrivances. I say “I suppose” because I was fascinated by every bit of it, even though I glanced at my watch now and then. I didn’t acknowledge that it was too long until I heard someone saying so on the way out. Most of the time it’s terrifically taut. That word is routinely applied to thrillers, but it’s specially appropriate to Michael Pearce’s style, which relies on specificity—almost every moment generates dramatic tension from a source that can be as subtle as a glance, or a single syllable of body language.
More than that, the film goes beyond who did what into matters of intention and expiation. Moll and Pascal are damaged and damaging souls—that’s clear from the start-- but did they mean to do whatever they might have done in the past, and does that matter? How much forgiveness have they earned? Wherever she goes, people who know her ask, in tones of disapproval, what is wrong with her. Wherever he goes, people who know nothing about him assume the worst. “Beast” plays with its lovers deftly, and then pitilessly.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.