The central consideration of Michael Pearce’s debut feature isn’t the potential of a breakdown for its heroine—within its earliest scenes, Moll (Jessie Buckley) has already clenched shards of broken glass in her palm after her sister deliberately derails her birthday party—but her insidious social conditioning. Cloistered at home for well over a decade after a violent grade-school outburst, Moll falls hard for the rugged poacher Pascal (Johnny Flynn), much to the dismay of her overbearing, classist family. While chemistry blossoms out of their shared status as outcasts, Pascal is soon named a prime suspect in a string of grisly murders of local adolescent girls, forcing Moll to determine whether he’s a scapegoat or indeed hiding a nefarious past… and whether or not that shifts her loyalties.
So restrained that it often comes off as coldly technical, Beast is most engaging when it lets loose and embraces Moll’s feverishness. But its surface-level riffs on fairy-tale setpieces suggest an inhibited cousin of recent genre films exploring young women’s social repression, like Joachim Trier’s Bergman-indebted Thelma, or Julia Ducournau’s vet-school cannibal horror film Raw.
Like both of these, Beast can’t stick its landing as it moves from concept toward conclusion: Pearce deflates his atmosphere of ambient dread with a garish bloodbath, whose metaphorical implications for Moll are troublingly linked to the allegations of sexual violence leveled at Pascal. The most memorable sequences in Beast may be its depictions of nightmares, confidently blocked in anxious handheld, but the film doesn’t twist itself enough for its images to ensnare the unconscious.
Chloe Lizottewrites on film and music for Reverse Shot, Screen Slate, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She lives in New York.