For nearly all of its running time, Beast lays out all the pieces you’ll need to come up with a solution to its puzzle, but you still may come up short by the time the answers are all lined up. This isn’t exactly a failing of the film, but rather a side effect of having seen enough of these to think there might be a puzzle in the first place. Beast ends up playing things a lot straighter than its twisty, sometimes hallucinatory narrative structure might lead you to believe, and that ends up being a huge plus, because any other ending, given the nature of all that comes before it, would probably have felt like a cop-out.
Jessie Buckley plays Moll, a seemingly sheltered woman still living at home with her parents on the island of Jersey. On her 27th birthday (which gets hijacked by her sister’s announcement that she’s having twins with her boring husband) she runs away from her own party, goes out drinking and dancing all night, and ends up meeting Pascal (Johnny Flynn), a sweet and charming guy who comes to her rescue just in time to prevent her from being sexually assaulted by another man she’d just met at the club. Oh, and Pascal is also the lead suspect in a string of abductions and murders that have been occurring all up and down the coast over the last few years.
Right up front, Beast presents itself as an abuse narrative, as we see all the ways in which Moll’s life is controlled by everyone else around her. Even her own thoughts are dangerous at times as she lives most of her days and nights haunted by a past trauma as a result of a violent incident that took place when she was around 14. All of this adds up to some striking character beats as we see Moll attempt to navigate not only the demands of everyone else around her but her own subconscious as well. Beast works best when it goes deep into Moll’s head and gets to the heart of what it’s like living with the pain of not knowing how you fit into your own story.
So, is Pascal the murderer everyone’s after? That’s the question, or at least one of them. Before it’s all over, the film offers plenty of evidence (or at least equal evidence) for the answer to be yes or no, with some hints that the title may refer to more than just the phantom stalking the young women of the town. When the answers finally come, it becomes less about either confirming or debunking your own theories (and the film’s own explicit solutions) than about giving yourself up to the dark psychological case study that’s been lurking beneath all that stuff with the detectives, abusive families and would-be boyfriends, and attempts to grab hold of what little concrete clues the characters see around them. It’s a weird, troubling story. But it ends, thankfully, in exactly the right spot. Rated R for disturbing violent content, language and some sexuality. Now playing at Carolina Cinemark.