Although "surreal" is all too often deployed as a lazy synonym for "weird" or "unusual," the term was actually coined to mean super-real, a heightened sense of reality in which the physical world coincides with psychological phenomena like dreams. It's that definition of surreality that comes to mind watching the new film Beast, a dark and disturbing story that never quite settles on becoming a romance, a mystery or a horror film but skillfully flirts with each genre.
Beast is set on Jersey, the small British island of beach fronts and daunting cliffs where tourism and rural life are intertwined. The film begins with a routine montage of scenes of peaceful life on Jersey, including our first view of Moll (Jessie Buckley), a young woman who sings in the church choir and works as a tour guide, a job that appears to be mostly a brief escape from the demands of her overbearing family. Yet within minutes, the film hits the first of many unsettling notes, as Moll, celebrating her birthday with family and friends, turns a sudden fit of temper into a scene of self-mutilation. It's clear that beneath her peaceful demeanor Moll has a great deal of rage.
Shortly thereafter, Moll falls for Pascal Renouf (Johnny Flynn), an alluring, rifle-toting young man. (Moll is fighting off the unwanted advances of a young man; Pascal shows up firing a warning shot. How's that for meeting cute?) The film flirts with a conventional story of love with a bad boy, but with an uncomfortable twist: Pascal is rough-edged and wild, Moll's family hates him ... and a lot of people seem to think he's the serial killer who's been murdering young women all over the island.
Beast is both a belated coming-of-age story and a psychological drama about a broken, restless young woman whose emotional vagaries are matched by the sudden turns and jolts of the screenplay. Writer/director Michael Pearce never quite settles on what kind of film it's supposed to be, but it's an intentional unsettlement, as he deliberately keeps the viewer on edge and the characters and their motivations a little out of focus. Frequent use of an unsteady handheld camera adds to the tension, giving the viewer a sense of voyeurism that complements Moll's own shakiness. There are moments of almost casual brutality, but Pearce isn't indulging in the callous, audience-hating cruelty of the currently fashionable New Brutality; he wants us to share Moll's discomfort, her sense of her safe, familiar life suddenly going out of balance.
The film is — perhaps unavoidably — uneven at times, but remains held together throughout by Jessie Buckley's courageously emotional performance as Moll. The plot thread about the police throwing suspicion on Pascal seems to come out of nowhere, and a significant bit of backstory about Moll's childhood seems a bit incomplete, but even these loose elements become crucial to the story by the time it reaches its bitter, unexpected conclusion. During the final 30 minutes, I was trying to get the film to conform to a traditional mystery structure and making guesses about the outcome, but Beast stubbornly and inventively refused to play along. Pearce, making his feature debut, has created a view of life that is unstable and slightly out of balance, letting the viewer reel along with it.