The freaky British thriller Beast opens on a troubled young woman pretending to enjoy a party, and doing a poor job of it.
She's a misfit named Moll (Jessie Buckley), meant to be celebrating her own birthday, but clearly alone in the middle of a crowd. Her isolation is underscored by the way director Michael Pearce places her in the frame, and the way she's costumed – her dress is bright and yellow as the sun, her wild mop of hair like a flaming red corona.
Sunny, though, Moll isn't. She grows more unhappy as she repels the advances of a dull man she doesn't like, then listens as her glamorous, popular married sister announces that she's pregnant with twins.
Moll's interior voice reveals her thoughts – musings about killer whales that go mad in captivity, injuring themselves on purpose. In the kitchen she breaks a glass, and squeezes the shards until her hand bleeds.
There are layers of foreshadowing here, and much about Moll is to be revealed, but the most immediate mystery in Beast involves a series of murders. Young women are being abducted and slain. Suspicion falls on a local handyman named Pascal (Johnny Flynn), a strange, hermetic fellow who has taken a romantic interest in Moll – sentiments she returns with enthusiasm.
Their relationship makes sense. Moll has a history that causes the locals to regard her with wariness, and she feels a bond with Pascal, also a victim of gossip, speculation, and chronic suspicion.
There is also rebellion in the way Moll cultivates this new romance, aimed at her domineering mother (Geraldine James). It's small, vivid, performance by James, who suggests in just a few high-voltage scenes how her efforts to improve and reform Moll are framed by toxic judgment, guilt, and a need for control.
Mom is certainly not happy about Pascal – an opinion seconded by the community at large. Suspicion of Pascal grows to a pitchfork-and-torches pitch, and Moll, as his ally and defender, is swept up in the wave.
Beast is loosely based on an actual series of murders that occurred in the Channel Islands, where the movie is set, and where Beast was actually filmed. It's beautifully shot by Benjamin Kracun, who captures the region's unique geography in a way that makes old England feel novel and new – folks drinking in seaside cafes, surfers carving waves in the background.
Beast, too, is a new wrinkle on material that movies have covered before. Moll knows that her boyfriend is a sadist (he kills animals), she knows he has a record, and we sense there is substantially more she may be willing to forgive.
Bad men and the women who love them? There is more to Beast than that, and much of it involves Moll's own peculiar psyche, explored in movie's final sections.
Suffice it to say, there is a good deal for Buckley to do, and she does it. In a year of memorable and unnerving female characters, she makes Moll stand out.