Beast is a superb addition to a saturated genre and features wondrous cinematography, well-realized and believable characters and a tense, exciting climax.
The key to the crime thriller genre—in every medium, including print, TV and film—is setting. What makes a setting particularly worthy, and therefore what catalyzes a compelling crime thriller, are three things: a palpable sense of dread, a communally-shared atmosphere of disadvantage or social tension and specific and novel places that will pique the interest of jaded readers/viewers who have consumed hundreds of similar texts, shows and films. On all three counts, the setting of Beast—the isle of Jersey—scores highly, so concomitantly Beast is an engaging crime thriller that will especially please fans of this ubiquitous genre.
Moll (Jessie Buckley) is an aristocratic English woman on Jersey and is expected to gallivant as a socialite and publicly perform her and her family’s prominence in the island community. Her family, as are most of the English families on the island, is stodgy and conservative. But Moll has a dark past that has her living with her parents even at age 27 and her smiling façade masks a stormy emotional interior. She has no intention of carrying on the family traditions of elaborate parties, stable kid-laden marriages and steady Tory sensibility. She yearns to be a free spirit, but lives in a place, the isle of Jersey, a formerly French island in the English Channel, where free spirits are frowned upon (because they are usually French).
Moll meets Pascal (Johnny Flynn) as she is drunkenly watching the sun rise on the beach (there’s a bit more menace to it than that, but no need to spoil it here). When a film gives them such a meet-cute, the couple is destined for romance. Pascal is precisely one of those frowned-upon French-named free spirits that make the brandy-drinking English upper-class cringe. Moll, feeling a belated sense of teenage rebellion, leaps into a torrid relationship with Pascal as much to stick it to her stuffy parents as from a sense of physical attraction.
There is an added layer of intrigue, transgression and danger to Moll’s affair with Pascal. Jersey is wracked by a serial kidnapping/murder spree and the suspect remains at large. Moll’s brother, a cop, suspects Pascal; certainly, the English residents are sure, the killer is a Frenchman. Moll will not believe any of the recriminating evidence pointing to Pascal and even falsifies an alibi for him regarding when they met. But as the evidence continues to mount, Moll finds herself ever more unsure as to Pascal’s innocence, torn between infatuation and giving the middle finger to her parents on one hand and concern for the safety of the young women of Jersey, including herself, on the other.
It is the isle of Jersey that makes Beast work. The broiling social anxiety of the British ruling class and the French peons, to whom the island is an ancestral home, is constantly simmering below the surface of every shot. Add in that Jersey is also a major tourist destination, particularly for young, party-and-sex-seeking Brits (who obviously want to get in bed with women with French sensibilities), and the potential for entertaining combustion is ratcheted even higher. The beaches, mansions and elaborate gardens of the island serve as stellar backdrops for cinematic conversations, enlivening simple shot-reverse shot sequences with bright colors. Jersey’s beaches are especially strange for viewers, because the island was fortified for various military affairs, especially World War II, when Jersey (which is self-governed but within the UK) sat uncomfortably between Hitler’s Atlantic Wall and the under-blitz British mainland. Moll’s meet-cute with Johnny, for instance, happens along the edges of a massive concrete bunker/fortification erected into the side of a grassy sand dune. Jersey has all the elements: a history of social angst, unique and specific places, buildings and situations and the dread of being an inescapable island threatened by a ruthless killer. At times, the film does feel a little too like “Broadchurch,” but then all crime thrillers share plenty in common and there is much to separate the English(ish) beach town of Beast from the English beach town of “Broadchurch.”
Beast is a superb addition to a saturated genre and features wondrous cinematography, well-realized and believable characters and a tense, exciting climax. There are jump scares and just the right amount of violence to spice it up. It hits all the right marks.