To steal from a podcast that I listen to, tone management is one of the most important jobs that a director has. Many first time directors seem to struggle for this, not quite accomplishing a consistent tone across their film, which can confuse audiences as to how they're supposed to be feeling. Tonal consistency is how Martin McDonagh movies can make you laugh, then have a heart-wrenching scene a few moments later and still remain effective. Both those emotions come from the same place, and it's important to keep such things in mind. Pearce here has not gone for anything quite as crazy as McDonagh's sometimes wild roller-coasters of emotion, but he has managed to achieve something that other inexperienced directors seem to not quite get, and that's the ability to toy with your audiences emotions without muddying the tone and themes of your film. Make no mistake, Beast is a movie that constantly pits your own expectations against you and fills you with doubt, confusion, and dread, but only in terms of the actual narrative. The core of this movie remains unflinching, and though it evolves over the course of the film (as it should), it remains solid in it's message and undeviating in it's central themes.
Going into Beast, I knew almost nothing about it. This is rare for me, as usually I can't help myself when I get excited with a movie, leading to watching trailers, reading plot synopses, reading reviews, things like that. Not knowing anything about it wasn't exactly an intentional choice on my part, but I am glad that it happened. All I really knew going in was that this had something to do with a serial killer, and what I ended up getting was a twisted love story, playing on the fears of growing into adulthood without the knowledge of who you really are set in stone. Our protagonist here, Moll (played by Jessie Buckley, a relative unknown), is a 20-something year old living with her parents in a small English town, doing not very much with her life. Her family is uncaring at best, abusive at worst, and she attempts to satisfy everyone despite the pain it brings her. When she gets sidelined at her own birthday, she decides she's had enough and bails, going out for a night on the town that eventually leads her to the next morning where she meets the mysterious, charming Pascal (played by Johnny Flynn, who is known mostly as a musician). These two characters are really the only very important cast members, with everyone else simply being elements in the world for them to interact with. This is for the best, because by focusing so intently on the couple, it doesn't let itself evolve into a straight murder mystery or police drama. There are elements of those two things of course, but as I said, this movie is completely about the relationship between these two characters, and also about Moll trying to figure out who she really is. The way the film does this is something I really love, putting people into an incredible situation to answer questions that every day people have. Moll's constant attempts to prove to everyone and herself that she is a good person is something that a lot of people struggle with, trying to not let their past overshadow their future, and trying to figure out how exactly it influences who they are today. Though a good chunk of the movie is about the murders that take place, truly the focus is on Moll and Pascal and how they deal with it both separately and together. Since the movie is from Moll's perspective, for the most part we just see her struggle and how it evolves, and as we learn more and more about her and her past, the film takes twists and turns and the intensity begins to increase as we learn that maybe, just maybe, Moll isn't who she thought she is.
All of this comes through because of the fantastic actress Jessie Buckley. I've never seen her in anything before, but I want to see her in more now just because of her performance here. The underlying tension of her character and the inner turmoil that she lives with comes out in unique ways, partially through the script but partially just through Buckley's acting. She wears her heart on her sleeve, attempting to mask emotions and tell lies that everyone sees through. Her weaknesses are obvious, her insecurities and failures are as visible as her distinct, red hair. This is all an intentional choice, because part of the character's arc is a transformation from a timid girl into a decisive woman. I loved this journey, because it fed into my recent search for movies with great female leads. Let me be clear, Moll is not a role model for anyone, or at least she shouldn't be. Her strength in a way is admirable but the aspects of her life that it's applied to is more of a mixed bag. What at first appears to be a tale of a loving romance not accepted by her harsh, borderline-abusive family, turns into something far darker. She stands up to them, publicly even, but after the film is all over you have to wonder whether it was for the right reasons. Johnny Flynn's Pascal is excellent as well, sometimes far too cool and charming for his own good. This is obviously a facade which quickly falls apart when confronted, and reveals his much more sinister, neurotic tendencies. They played extremely well off of each other, and the chemistry the characters shared strengthened the films by it's believability; I could almost feel the attraction they had towards each other, even from the moment they met. This is a part of the tragedy of this film, a reflection of the way that sometimes we genuinely can't control our emotions, including who we're attracted to. Sometimes, as people, we just feel a gravity towards others that cannot be dissuaded by logic or by circumstance. Moll falls into this trap with Pascal, and the way that they revolve around each other soon turns into something more resembling a death spiral for the both of them.
Most of this film, as I said, is focused on the two main characters, which makes it an intimate affair despite the larger impact of the events they go through. This intimacy and focus, along with the emotional intensity of their actions, comes through crystal clear in the directing. As a debut film, Beast is a ringing endorsement for the talents of Peace, demonstrating his ability to show instead of tell, and his willingness to use the camera to establish mood. Extremely frequently, the blocking of the scene tells a story of the current dynamic between the characters, which is of course not an uncommon technique, but it's refreshing to see a debut director handle this sort of things so elegantly. There are no obvious or showy cuts, no overly stylistic camera movements or shots, it is all grounded in a realistic way of shooting which lends itself to helping us feel even closer to Moll's experience. This is a film that is simultaneously unafraid to be openly cinematic with it's beautiful setting and stirring musical score, and also committed to making a bizarre situation as personal as possible. Does it work perfectly? No, of course not. No one makes a masterpiece on their first try, every director has mistakes they wish they could correct. In this case Pearce was also the writer, so my criticism could probably come down to perhaps not fleshing out the character of Pascal enough. He's an effective foil to Moll, and is a compelling character to watch in scenes he's in for multiple reasons, but ultimately by the end of the film I still felt like I didn't really understand what his overall motivations were for his actions. He serves his purpose in the scene very well, but from a writing perspective he did feel more like a character than an actual person.
That's not to say that I didn't think the film was a success. Obviously from the rest of what I wrote, I believe Beast will hopefully be the beginning of a great film career for Pearce. His ability to help the audience establish an emotional connection to a character like Moll so quickly, and his visually pleasing cinematography, only make me want to see more from him. A film of this caliber from a first time director is always a good sign of things to come, and one can only hope that the quality of excellence in Beast will pop up again in whatever his future projects may hold.