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Beast (2018)
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by Jay Seaver

"A dark romance that never quite gets dark enough."
3 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2018: "Beast" is the sort of movie that figures it can let a serial killer running loose in the community sort of simmer in the background, confident that the psychological drama it's got running up front is more interesting. That's true enough for a while, as the audience gets to know its young woman with an overbearing family and her own dark side, but eventually it's got to start pulling things together, and it's all too clear that neither the crime wave nor boyfriend Pascal is nearly as interesting as Moll is.

That would be Moll Henderson (Jessie Buckley), a nice-enough young woman who helps look after her ailing father between shifts as a tour-bus guide, but who nevertheless walks out of her own birthday party to go dancing. You can't really blame her; it is the sort of party that her domineering mother Hilary (Geraldine James) throws as a social event and that favored sister Polly (Shannon Tarbet) kind of hijacks with her own announcement anyway. Moll meets one guy in the club but likes him less by the time the sun comes up and he's starting to get insistent, but their paths fortunately cross with Pascal Renouf (Johnny Flynn), out poaching and not averse to using his rifle to scare a guy off. Pascal seems nice enough too, if a bit rougher on the edges, but the cop (Trystan Gravelle) investigating the rape and murder of a number of teenage girls has a thing for Moll, and maybe that's why he's looking at Pascal's criminal record and whereabouts the night of that party (when another girl disappeared) fairly closely.

One may initially read Moll as a teenager, and I wonder if that's deliberate on the part of writer/director Michael Pearce. That first impression of her as limited or immature may have holes punched in it early, but first impressions can be hard to shake, so that even later on, as the audience realizes that there is likely more to Moll than first let on, what she's actually capable of can still surprise a bit, even if Pearce has been giving the audience a window into her darker thoughts and the occasional sharp, defiant line. Moll matures by following through on impulsiveness.

Given all that, Jessie Buckley makes it interesting to see what Moll is maturing into. Buckley gives Moll a posh-but-friendly manner of speaking, though there's an edge to her that is never far from the surface. There's a point where she's able to cast shade while still showing a certain amount of optimism, but her most telling scenes are the ones opposite Trystan Gravelle as Clifford, the local cop. It's not a big shift from their first scenes where Moll seems unsure about how to handle this attention to the ones toward the end where there's little doubt that she outright despises him. She flattens her voice and straightens her back, not hardened so much as stronger, a strength that shows up even when she's is being conciliatory.

Gravelle's work on the other side of those scenes is nearly as good, although not quite the sort one admires; he plays the entitled man convinced he's a good guy but always pushing it a bit too far. He plays up the wounded pride just enough to go from mistaken to being a creep over the course of the movie. There's not even that much ambiguity to the way Geraldine James plays Hilary - even before the film confirms that Moll once screwed up badly and her mother is never going to let her move on from that, and she's an intimidating force.

And then there's Johnny Flynn as Pascal, and he just doesn't click. The movie needs Pascal to seem dangerous - if not to the level of a plausible rapist and murderer, then at least as someone who could potentially hurt Moll - but he never manages that, not even in the moments when it should seemingly be easy. He's just a scruffy guy who only briefly has moments where he seems like he could be the threat that everybody else describes him as being, and as the back half of the film becomes more caught up in Moll lying for him and the crime putting the island more on edge, it feels like things are moving forward but that there's got to be something more interesting for Moll to be caught up in.

It's a strange situation - all the pieces for something dramatic are there, and Pearce has a couple of eye-raising things as the movie reaches its end, but that serial killer story never becomes the big deal it should. Viewers will be intrigued by Moll, and she deserves more.

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originally posted: 05/13/18 01:56:35
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2018 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Chicago Critics Film Festival For more in the 2018 Chicago Critics Film Festival series, click here.

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  11-May-2018 (R)
  DVD: 04-Sep-2018


  DVD: 04-Sep-2018

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