The minute, and I mean the very minute, that Jessie Buckley's Moll arrives on the screen in writer/director Michael Pearce's Beast it becomes apparent that there is something more to the young woman than the mild, demure and obedient holograph of a woman that her immensely controlling mother (Geraldine James) would aim for her to be.
Moll is introduced to us on the occasion of her birthday party, though it's quite apparent that she's really a side figure to a spectacle that she has no desire to be a part of yet does so in her usual submissive way.
It was in these initial moments of the film that I first found myself mumbling the words "Who is this Jessie Buckley?" These are words I would mumble again and again throughout Pearce's flawed yet utterly fantastic Beast, a film that withholds information yet somehow never feels manipulative or gamey.
It is surprising to us when Moll announces to us in an early voiceover that she has always been obsessed with those "always smiling" killer whales.
Eventually, we'll understand.
The birthday party, as we might expect, goes awry when the family dynamics, which we don't truly grasp but we know have long been askew, shift the center of attention away from Moll and Moll flees into the dark knight unsure of where she's going but going anyway.
The escape goes equally awry, a night of dancing giving way to seaside kissing and a young fellow who thinks "no" means "yes."
Pascal (Johnny Flynn), a rifle totin' stranger who mysteriously arrives on the scene, understands this and successfully chases off the would be perpetrator.
He's a hero, I suppose you could say.
There's something about Pascal, a something that rises to the surface almost immediately and it never really leaves the screen no matter how heroic Pascal gets or no matter how much he seems to become that true safe harbor for Moll.
There's something there. It's uncomfortable.
Flynn's Pascal has a quiet charisma, a sort of working class charm and free spirit that feels like a polar opposite to Moll's disciplined, hyper-controlled life. It's not surprising that Moll is drawn closer to him.
We can feel it. She absolutely has to be drawn closer to him.
It's also not surprising that Moll's family will reject their connection, his socially unaware ways and grotesquely unmannered presentations proving to be far too much of an interruption to the family's way of doing things. Pascal isn't just rough around the edges. He's rough.
We worry about Moll, whose fiery-red locks make it look like Molly Ringwald has been transported to the English isle of Jersey where the story is set and the film was shot.
Admit it. You've already made assumptions yourself made simply based upon the words in this review.
Partly, you would be right. Mostly, you would be wrong.
Pearce's script withholds key pieces of information, some of it until late in the game and much of it tossed out in bits and pieces that never quite seem connected until we begin to realize that they are connected.
Jessie Buckley gives the type of performance that makes you instantly rush over to IMDB to look up her credits, wondering how this stunning talent could possibly have never entered your radar. Buckley is, indeed, a relative newcomer and this is especially true to American audiences. An Irish singer and actress who came in second place in the BBC talent show-themed television series "I'd Do Anything," it would appear that, indeed, Buckley can do just about anything. Buckley's performance is simply extraordinary, vacillating between an aching, innocent vulnerability and a ferocious, feral quality with equal ease. The Jersey Island setting enhances the claustrophobic quality that envelopes Buckley's Moll, while her unpredictably spirit-crushing mother threatens to further crush her. Buckley's performance is simply remarkable and I want to see more from her.
It's difficult to describe just how strong of a performance Johnny Flynn offers here, but with a dramatic story arc it's a remarkable sign of a disciplined performance that he never overwhelms Buckley's Moll. We're never sure of Flynn's Pascal and Flynn make sure of that until it is time for the story to be fully told. The chemistry between Flynn and Buckley is also devastatingly right-on, both delicate and relentless, free-spirited and remarkably restrained. You can't take your eyes off of them, never quite knowing the truth yet being drawn into both their lives almost unreasonably.
As Moll's mother, Geraldine James is rather stunning herself with a chilling efficacy that makes you think you understand Moll's ways yet there's a shift in perception by film's end. It's a remarkable performance, in many ways a cornerstone for the film, and James is simply top notch here.
The film's lensing by Benjamin Kračun is mesmerizing, capturing both the beauty and isolation of Jersey while also enveloping us with that claustrophobic overwhelm that heightens the tension and amplifies the sense of risk. The music by Jim Williams crashes like the Jersey Waves against the words being spoken and the images flashing before our eyes.
Beast is a tremendous feature debut by Michael Pearce, only occasionally briefly detouring into first-time filmmaker territory that falls short of the authenticity so present throughout much of the film. The film's dream sequences, for example, feel far more forced than the rest of the film and disrupt Beast's dramatic and emotional rhythm.
Yet, let it be said that these are minor quibbles for a film that kept me engrossed and involved from beginning to end.
Beast is currently in a limited arthouse release in the U.S. with indie distributor Roadside Attractions and arrives in Indy on 5/25 at Landmark's Keystone Art Cinema. It's been a rather remarkable first half of the cinematic year and Beast becomes yet the latest "must see" film of 2018.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic