Michael Pierce’s feature debut Beast is less than the sum of its parts. It has very, very strong scenes, but just because the pearls are all beautiful doesn’t mean they belong on the same necklace. Here’s a list from memory: the moment when Moll (Jessie Buckley) runs away from her own birthday party to go dancing. The moment when she meets Pascal (Johnny Flynn) for the first time and is smitten with him, because he looks as wild as she wants to be, and he might be her ticket out of the stuffy surroundings of a small town on a small island called Jersey. The moment when Moll lies into the grave of a dead girl, pretending to be her. The well-meaning cruelty of her mother (Geraldine James). Moll’s apology to the girl she hurt back in school. The whole funeral sequence.
It’s a maddening movie to think about because all these plus points don’t add up to very much. The flaws seem to be somewhere between the writing and the editing, as if Pierce decided to film a draft, and not a polished screenplay, and then the editor sliced the whole story further. I have no problem with the fact that it remains unclear if Pascal had something to do with the disappearance of the girls. You can make up your own mind if he did it or not, or if you want to leave that question open because the film will let you do that. The first problem, however, I have with Beast, is the physical violence: every time someone gets physically harmed, it quickly turns out to be one of Moll’s dreams or overcooked memories or nightmares. While a violent psyche doesn’t bother me all that much, it’s as if the movie wants to present a violent scene and then apologize for it immediately. If you want to tell a violent story, tell it that way, but don’t include slashing and stabbing exclusively in flashbacks that turn out to be all in Moll’s head.
Both Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn are great in their roles. Flynn can change from lost little boy to angry man and then back again to soulful in a moment without doing all that much, and sometimes, he seems to be caught on both sides of the moral fence at once. Buckley plays Moll as a young woman who knows what she wants and how to get it, but then is afraid of her own courage and of the consequences of the damage she has done. I’ve seen her only in period costume (War & Peace and Taboo), and it’s refreshing to find her in the here and now for a change. It’s a pity that the material doesn’t give both of them more to do.