Many works of fiction contain a monologue that either represents the totality of its thematic framework or intentionally foreshadows the impending arc a character or group of characters will undertake. For writer-director Michael Pearce’s feature debut, the macabre Grimm-inspired fairy tale Beast, that monologue reserved for Moll’s (Jessie Buckley) inner thoughts is ideologically stripped from the documentary Blackfish. Any place, regardless of size or relative beauty and when made irrevocable attachments to them whether they be bad memories, circumstances or people, can feel like a trap. Often enough, that place is home, though most of us cannot claim our trap is an island.
While Jersey-native (the British isle off the coast of France, not the U.S. state) Moll channels her inner Gabriela Cowperthwaite elucidating and disparaging the various psychological effects whales often experience in captivity, Pearce isn’t trying to convince you the titular metaphorical beast lurks deep within his ginger-haired protagonist. In fact, the cut-and-dry manner in which he lays out this comparison – within the film’s first ten minutes, no less – tells us he isn’t interested in slathering on heavy-handed symbolism any attentive audience member will have figured out as quickly as the appearance of a title card. This isn’t a film geared toward helping us understand who Moll is, but rather is in service of Moll understanding herself; no longer denying the demons she’s repressed.
In that way, though in retrospect, there is an uncommon liveliness found in each admittedly frustrating and jarring tonal shift, at once disguising and displaying a festering malignancy metastasizing like a foul bodily ooze. You think the only reason an ultimate endgame isn’t clearly discernible is because Pearce cannot focus well enough to engender a consistent atmosphere with his plot’s progression, to the point where it’s damn near maddening. But while said unevenness cannot go unmentioned, the third act’s sudden gear shift into sleazy, even somewhat shocking genre territory awakens an immediate emotional reaction that, depending on the viewer, will either justify these criticisms or forgive them entirely.
Beast is beautiful, fucked up, exasperating and it provokes a kind of visceral love wherein it seems impossible to completely separate disparate feelings of adoration and hatred. One moment, you’re marveling in Benjamin Kracun’s moody visuals perfectly calibrated for a directorial approach emphasizing the bubbling and boiling subtlety of Moll’s many fraught relationships, and the next you’re flabbergasted at how the film could overstep with its plentiful use of perfunctory beats made more upsetting by their peculiar placement in the narrative. It continues with the vague semblance of this pattern; foster the tension with quiet, careful tenacity and then swiftly punctuate the relative silence with emotional, if also narratively cliché explosions.
We grow so accustomed to this rhythm, we almost don’t realize when Beast finally breaks out of it with its exhausting, yet captivating final stanza, bleakly concluding a story in which Moll expends great psychological energy convincing herself she isn’t the monster others may claim. It’s a chilling spiral to witness no less because of a quietly imposing turn from Buckley, but also because of how it hammers in the feeling of bitter isolation in the madness falsely perceived by others and reluctantly internalized by the self. Perhaps it’s only then that the unsung beauty of Pearce’s narrative can reveal itself; blossoming pain made manifest in a steady build towards a violent crescendo.
And all this time, Pearce has deliberately taken away the agency one typically feels as an audience member to make us feel as stranded as Moll, not through a windy plot rendering all our guesses moot, but rather because of its topsy-turvy tonal approach hindering, if not removing our ability to interpret Moll’s emotional state at any given moment – aside from when she explicitly lets it all out. To destabilize the sort of relationship viewers typically have with a story by subjecting them totally to anything overwhelming and by any means – in this case, unbridled chaos – is an incredibly ballsy move for any filmmaker, let alone a feature-length debutant. Thankfully, Pearce doesn’t make this divisive commitment without purpose.
In a certain sense, Pearce positions Beast as a cross-the-pond, somewhat cousin of Taxi Driver; specifically, that the film is a brooding, morally vacant character study of a protagonist whose connection with reality and humanity gradually wanes into a state of being from which there is no coming back. We may see Moll as more of a legitimate and sympathetic victim of circumstance than Travis Bickle, but the dread instilled by the dark path both characters inevitably walk almost feels one in the same. We may not know much about Moll, particularly how she feels and what she’ll do to alleviate her suffering, but like Travis, we know when she hits her breaking point. What happens from there is out of our hands.
The two films also happen to culminate with emotionally overpowering finales that make for blood-curdling portrayals of human fragility. Beast just happens to arrive at this point via a clusterfuck-cum-implicitly genius descent as opposed to Taxi Driver’s steady decline. It’s one of the few movies, certainly from this year, that will have you exiting the theater feeling worse than when you walked in, and yet the feeling couldn’t be more welcome. Throughout the alienation we experience with Moll, we must simply remind ourselves and feel thankful that a theater auditorium isn’t the same trap as home.