Two young actors shine in the story of a shy girl and her accused murderer boyfriend.

There are some things that can help create atmosphere, especially when a film is trying to tell a dark, brutal story. For Michael Pearce’s Beast, the atmosphere is a dynamic mix. The long camera pans across empty beaches and rolling hills in the film’s setting of Jersey, an island in the English channel. A hauntingly still camera lingers over a choir rehearsing an ominous piece. The shy, sideways smile of a lonely young woman who feels like an outcast at her own birthday party. It’s easy to see that something’s off in the life of Mol, the aforementioned outcast played by newcomer Jessie Buckley (FX’s Taboo).

With her vibrantly red hair and demure behavior, Mol is the centerpiece of the story for the audience, but a background player in the lives of the people around her. We soon see that this is a love story and Mol is our tortured protagonist. It all accelerates when she leaves her birthday for a night of dancing with strangers. When the sun comes up, Mol finds herself in the precarious position of being assaulted by one of her dance mates on the beach. That is until she is saved by a local craftsman named Pascal — played by the ruggedly handsome, equally understated Johnny Flynn (Clouds of Sils Maria) — who was out poaching rabbits.

The meat of the film is a love story, an inauspicious tale of two loners finding each other despite the best efforts of Mol’s overbearing mother. It’s the kind of sweet yet ominously dark film one might expect from any of Britain’s indie dramatists. If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear someone like Ben Wheatley had something to do with it. Alas, this one sits squarely on the shoulders of writer/director Michael Pearce, making his feature debut. Pearce crafts an intimate, almost wistful romantic surge for Mol and Pascal that lulls the audience into a false sense of calm, only to then pull the rug out from underneath us as Pascal is accused of several brutal murders of young women on the island.

The accusation leads to a third act that’s a rumination on the nature of trust and goodness. How does one know if someone else is or isn’t a murderer? As Pascal is held for questioning, we follow Mol’s turbulent emotional ride. It’s here where Jessie Buckley blossoms as an actress. Hers is a thoughtful, carefully articulated performance that jumps off the screen. Her pain and joy are mesmerizing as she work’s through an unthinkable emotional conundrum.

This magnetic performance and atmosphere come together to create a dark, beautiful slow-burn thriller that delivers unexpectedly brutal outcomes. The audience is forced to reckon with terrible acts of violence and the possibility that such acts are being committed by characters we should otherwise like. Inside the film’s quiet moments are compassion and sweetness, both complicating our relationship with the film’s central mystery. We, like Mol, must decide whether we believe Pascal to be the kind outcast or the purveyor of horrible atrocities. None of it is easy, but every ounce of it is arresting.

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