As depicted by British writer-director Michael Pearce in his feature debut “Beast,” the Channel Island of Jersey is, despite its relatively small size, a locale of striking contrasts, its bleak rocky coastline and dense woods giving way to manicured golf courses and suburban housing developments. Against this dichotomy between the wild and the civilized, Pearce present a tad-too-familiar murder mystery that works best when it focuses on the barely buried ferocity of its main character.
Caught between two worlds is Moll Huntford (Jessie Buckley). Still notorious within her family's tony community for stabbing a bullying middle school schoolmate with a pair of scissors, Moll, now 27, lives at home under her mother's close and critical scrutiny, working as a bus tour guide and singing in the church choir, which her mother directs.
It's clear early on, that the long-simmering Moll is nearing a boiling point. She finds hairs sprouting from her throat and, upstaged at her own birthday party by her sister's pregnancy announcement, retreats to the kitchen where she crushes shards from a broken glass inside her closed fist.
So when rough outsider Pascal (Johnny Flynn) saves her from an attempted rape, it's not surprising that Moll falls for him. For a young woman exorcising a long-delayed rebellion, Pascal is a dream come true, representing, as he does, all that her family abhors (he works with his hands and wears jeans to a country club function!).
He's also the prime suspect in a series of child murders that is terrorizing the island. No worries; Moll lies to the police and says she was with him when the last little girl went missing.
Despite the TV news clips running in the background, lines of searchers walking open fields, and the occasional police interview, Pearce is not interested in crafting yet another British police procedural; he is interested in these two outsiders' identities--who they really are and whether one of them is a murderer.
After all, both have violent tendencies. The gun Pascal uses to run off Moll's assailant he also uses to poach rabbits, a skill to which he introduces her. And despite her tears at her first kill, we're well aware of Moll's unexpressed rage.
That the film's second half gets bogged down in soap-operatics and an ill-paced and heavy-handed resolution takes little away from the ferocity of Jessie Buckley's performance as the liberated Moll. Herself an image of striking contrasts— wild red tresses and willowy sundresses—Buckley takes Moll past any standard incarnations of middle-class teen rebellion. At times, she is positively feral. Chased from a funeral for one of the murdered girls, Moll finally turns on her harassers, two sizable men, and screams so long and with such anger and frustration that they stop in their tracks.
That is a beast you can't take your eyes off.