Writer-director Michael Pearce makes an interesting if flawed debut with the psychological thriller Beast.
Jessie Buckley plays Moll, a tour guide in an English town who lives with her domineering mother (Geraldine James). Her siblings aren’t much kinder, so she is clearly looking for someone to connect with when she meets a drifter (Johnny Flynn). But Flynn soon becomes a suspect in a series of murders plaguing the town. Buckley is left to decide whether she should believe Flynn or retreat back to her possessive family.
Movies featuring a main character left to wonder whether or not someone they cared about could be a monster are nothing new. Hitchcock went to this well more than once with Shadow of a Doubt and Suspicion. Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas made a career out of it with Jagged Edge, The Music Box, Basic Instinct, Sliver, and Jade. But there’s a reason filmmakers come back to this question and that’s because it is a fascinating “what if” to consider. It’s easy for viewers to put themselves into the shoes of the main character and wonder how they would react if someone they loved were accused of something terrible.
Beast is at its most interesting when it lets viewers ponder this question. It also gives Buckley a dark backstory of her own that allows viewers to understand why she might be attracted to a potentially dangerous outcast. But the problem with the “did he/she or didn’t he/she” thrillers is the conclusion almost always feels like a bit of an afterthought. Even the best examples of these types of thrillers (the two aforementioned Hitchcock films and Al Pacino’s Sea of Love) are better at the build-up than the resolution. Similarly, Beast’s final act doesn’t measure up to its previous parts.
Another flaw in the film’s second half is that the subtly cruel mother character mostly disappears. In the first half, it feels like she’ll be a major supporting character, but there is no resolution to that subplot and the character barely factors in the film’s final 45 minutes.
Those quibbles aside, there is enough skill here to keep an eye out for Pearce’s future work.