Moll is a wild one, they say. A young woman kept close to her strict home following a violent incident at school, she’s relentlessly chafing at her bonds and looking for some release. When she’s upstaged by her sister at her own birthday party, she wanders off into the night, to the seashore, to a club, and eventually, the next morning, into the path of local Jersey boy (OG Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, where the film is set), Pascal, “a bit of rough,” who’s ragged looks, and apparently smell, Moll finds instantly magnetic. In a sense, he’s an externalization of her, and she’s only too happy to introduce this fragrant wraith into the polite society of her family and their acquaintances, who can barely tolerate him. This is due in large part to his criminal history, which suggests he might now be a suspect in a string of young girls’ disappearances.
Criminal case aside, the first quarter of Beast feels a bit familiar, a speedy, only-in-the-movies melodrama, Pascal a Heathcliff-like romantic interest in a British love story that violates social rules. But it’s what Pascal opens up in Moll, and the remarkable performance of Jessie Buckley, that begins to push us into darker, more interesting territory. Buckley’s subtlety and physicality are deeply compelling as her character confronts her own past, embodying this struggle in the gait of a mature woman with the hunched shoulders and scowl of a picked-on school girl. While Johnny Flynn’s Pascal has menace written in his gaunt frame and unusual, damaged face, Buckley’s barely contained rage sometimes makes us worry for his safety.
That said, Beast never quite transcends its models, employing the worn dichotomy of the locked down camera to communicate stability and enclosure and a jittery, handheld approach when things begin to go off the rails. (There are moments of remarkable editing here, though.) And the film is also a bit overlong, even wearisome without quite touching the emotional depths it might have been capable of had it diverted even further from its melodramatic formula. There are a good number scenes that, while excellent, probably could have been cut without losing any of the film’s tension. A trimmer version of the ending, in fact, which begins to feel desperate to achieve conflagration, might have produced a more fulfilling sense of ambiguity about the limits of justice and love, while confirming the inevitably of blind violence as a natural force, a concept Beast seems to court even from its opening shot of the wild sea, its horizon lost in murk.