If there’s any hope of loving a heroine harboring a past that includes ramming a scissor into the chest of her teenage tormentor, you’d better hope she’s played by an actress as transfixing as Jessie Buckley. But she’s hardly the only reason to experience the intoxicating depravity of Michael Pearce’s thrilling Gothic romance “Beast.” There’s also the smoldering sexuality of her hunky hunk of burning love co-star Johnny Flynn.
Together, they torch the screen with the kind of forbidden amour between a sheltered rich girl and the blue-collar dude from across the tracks you’ve seen dozens of times before. But this time it manages to feel gloriously different because the two leads are awash in dark secrets, including the possibility that one — or both — of them are the serial killer who’s been preying on the young girls of their quaint hamlet on the secluded isle of Jersey.
That’s the overt mystery at play, but the one that sucks you in is solving the riddle of who Buckley’s Moll and Flynn’s Pascal really are once you get past the assumptions and outward appearances. And Pearce, in his directorial debut, has a ball torturing us with steadily building intrigue, as we futilely attempt to sort out what’s what. Even in the gripping finale, when (almost) all is revealed you’re still working overtime fitting all the pieces of the puzzle.
What’s clear is that the twisty story would not work nearly as well as it does without an actress as charismatic as Buckley, making the most of what should be a breakout performance. From the moment you first spot her residing under that mop of fiery red hair, singing in a choir directed by her domineering mother (Vanessa Redgrave clone Geraldine James), you’re drawn to her offbeat loveliness. Even more so after the night of Moll’s birthday party, when the 27-year-old ducks out after being upstaged for the umpteenth time by her priggish older sister, Polly (Shannon Tarbet).
She heads to the isle’s hottest night spot, picks up a dude that practically has “danger” stamped across his forehead and winds up nearly being raped on the nearby beach. What saves her is a well-tossed rock by local rabbit poacher, Pascal. He shoos the emasculated offender away and immediately sweeps Moll off her feet. It’s unbelievably romantic, a death-defying meeting right out of “Wuthering Heights.” And it’s a tone Pearce deftly sets throughout — even when doubt and suspicion creep into Moll’s mind regarding a man who indeed may be too good to be true.
It triggers a cliff dive toward increasing madness that consumes Moll so thoroughly she begins to doubt her own sanity. And those violent nightmares she’s been having; is it possible they aren’t really dreams, but actualities? It ties you up in knots. It also keeps you on your toes, as every time you think you have ID’d the killer, Pearce diverts you in an entirely new direction. That, my jaded moviegoers, is a sign of a director confident in his skill to lead an audience exactly where he wants it to go — no questions asked.
He loses a bit of that momentum down the stretch, but not enough to pull you out of a trance he’s created by marrying ingenuity with old-fashioned horror tropes. It may not rewrite the genre, but it sure as heck feels fresh and rewarding. Pearce is equally adept at taking a setting as gorgeous as Jersey and lacing it with menacing air that suggests paradise is not immune from the grotesque.
More than that, he has Buckley, an actress able to project a seemingly contradictory combination of fragility and strength, and then use it to optimum effect. Her Moll may look wounded and sad, but deep down, it’s clear she’s a woman you don’t want to mess with, especially when she’s ticked. And after spending 100 nail-biting minutes in her company, you’ll know that whenever she comes around, it’s best to hide the scissors.
Cast includes Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn, Geraldine James, and Shannon Tarbet.
(R for disturbing violent content, language and some sexuality.)