1 Hr., 46 Mins.
Beast August 2, 2019
id he do it? The “he,” in this case, is a hirsute young man named Pascal (Johnny Flynn). The “do it,” in this case, is commit murder. “Did he do it” is the question that haunts Beast, a British psychological thriller from 2018. "Did he do it” is also the question always lurking in the back of the head of a 27-year-old woman named Moll (Jessie Buckley), who makes the mistake of falling in love with Pascal shortly
into the movie.
Beast, which was written and directed by Michael Pearce, who is also making his filmmaking debut here, works with a familiar formula, playing with the done-to-death trope of a woman falling in love with a man who may or may not have committed murder. (My favorite example is 1950’s In a Lonely Place, in which a honeyed Gloria Grahame worries that her new lover, a hot-tempered screenwriter and neighbor played by Humphrey Bogart, might have killed a girl she saw in his apartment a few evenings ago.) But Pearce is decidedly less concerned with making an outrightly thrilling or sinfully romantic movie. He’s more intrigued by the neuroses of his characters, and the dysfunction driving their relationships. Focused on particularly are those of Moll, who is one of the more riveting thriller protagonists in recent memory.
When we first meet her, her family is throwing a birthday party for her. Moll, quiet and reserved, makes a point to blend in with the wallpaper. Her attitude, a kind of sullen teenage brattiness, is more complicated than might meet the eye; it's a reaction, almost, to a couple of things we learn specifically torment her. Her family members, whom she lives with,
judgmentally loom over her. Her mother is expressly prone to performing anxiety-inducing interrogations if she’s found that the grown Moll has “misbehaved." A disturbing incident from the past remains at the forefront of her mind, which also defines much of her unease. (When Moll was a little girl, she attacked a bully to a near-homicidal degree — a rattling experience from which she has understandably struggled to move past.)
Our heroine is established as someone we should maybe feel ambivalent about. Yet we're almost compulsively sympathetic to her. In arrested development, and disillusioned with herself and her life (by day, she’s a tour guide), she's begun looking at her inertia as a sort of natural punishment — a condition we commiserate with against our better judgment.
Pascal enters Moll’s life at a fortuitous moment. After a night of clubbing, she's accosted, and nearly sexually assaulted, by one of the men she’d been dancing with while walking home. Pascal, a poacher, intervenes just as things are about to get ugly. He and Moll get to talking, and, to the latter’s surprise, a rom-com-style spark lights. Not long into Beast, the pair begin a romantic relationship — something that leaves Moll’s family nervous not just because of her emotional instability but also because a serial murderer and rapist has recently descended on their island town. Pascal, whom we discover has a disconcerting criminal past, is the prime suspect.
Like in other movies concerning potentially deadly lovers, from Bonnie and Clyde (1967) to Badlands (1973), much of the success of Beast rests on how much we’re convinced by the central relationship, and how much we understand why these people are attracted to each other. Pascal’s reason for being so enamored of Moll is left murky — perhaps as a way to keep him as enigmatic as possible — but, in Moll’s case, it's easy to infer.
Formidably handsome in a years-past-his-prime Abercrombie & Fitch model sort of way, with his hair dirtied and salt-watered, his fingernails slightly long and undercut with grime, Pascal is appealing for his distinct looks, for one thing. But he's also appealing because he's the first person in a long time to show a genuine interest in Moll. In her is a woman who long ago adjusted to the idea that, in order to ease the pains of her youthful mistakes, she’d have to be as invisible as possible as a way to atone. But Pascal, who appears fixated on her almost from the moment he first meets her onward, neither considers Moll invisible nor is much bothered when she tells him about the near-deadly incident from some years ago. Though we never trust Pascal for ourselves, he’s too good to be true in Moll’s eyes. So when Moll goes as far as providing him with a false alibi when another person is found murdered on the island, and when she seems relatively unfazed when the police tell her why her new lover is the main suspect in the case, we can understand why. It's hard to deny a breakthrough when one comes. Remaining in denial is, of course, a morally knotty thing to practice given the scenario, but Moll’s actions never ring as unreasonable or implausible for the character — a testament to the efficiency of Pearce’s writing.
A testament, too, to the mastery of Buckley’s performance. Moll is a difficult, contradictory character. Yet Buckley, who's up to the challenges presented by Pearce’s script, is complicatedly sympathetic when she should be thoroughly repellant. Though Flynn, too, is dynamic, the movie, in the end, becomes less about the Flynn-centric “did he do it” question and more about Buckley. If he (Pascal) did it (was responsible for all these murders and rapes), what will Moll do? Buckley and Pearce make us eager to find out. A-