It’s increasingly rare to walk into a modern theatrical release without any extratextual info setting expectations for what you’re about to see. Maybe it’s because I spend way too much time engaging with film criticism online (it is), but I’m usually familiar at least with a film’s critical consensus, if not its basic plot & production history, before I get to experience a movie for myself. Especially with bigger, heavily advertised blockbusters under the ever-expanding Disney umbrella, it feels as if I’m so familiar with a film’s history & early critical buzz by the time that I actually see it that there’s no possibility left for surprise or discovery, just an echo of what’s already been observed. Completely blind experiences are the stuff of local film festivals, not national theatrical releases. It was wonderful, then, to walk into the recent, darkly romantic drama Beast at a corporate multiplex with no idea what I was in for. Based on the film’s title, promotional poster, and inclusion in this year’s Overlook horror film fest I halfway expected a werewolf-type creature feature. Based on its promotional push on the MoviePass app and complete lack of critical buzz otherwise, I expected it to be a cheaply-produced frivolity. My vague expectations, based entirely on personal conjecture, were entirely wrong, something I wish could happen at the theater much more often.
Within an isolated community in the British Isles, a young, well-to-do suburban woman with an overprotective family falls in love with a wildling bad-boy who often finds himself on the wrong side of the law. Their shared physical, dangerously intense thirst for each other is apparent as soon as they first lock eyes, making it inevitable that she will have to leave the comfort of her country club lifestyle for a life of off-season rabbit hunting & menial physical labor. Part of this attraction is the pair’s capacity for & history of violence, something they sense in each other before it’s ever spoken aloud. She struggles to live down a childhood incident where she lashed out at a schoolyard bully with disproportionate vengeance. He suffers suspicion of being a serial murderer of young girls on the island, due to a similarly guarded secret from his own past. They’re mutually unsure whether to trust or fear each other after being drawn together though intense desire, as their volatile passions & separate histories with lethal violence can only mean their romance will end in bloodshed. Beast is partly a murder mystery concerning the missing young girls in this isolated community, but mostly a dark romance tale about two dangerous people who can’t help but be pulled into each other’s violent orbits. Issues of class, self-harm, domestic abuse, and never truly knowing who to trust run throughout, but the film mostly mines its intensity from the unavoidable pull of Natural impulses, whether violent, romantic, or otherwise.
What’s most immediately impressive here is the tone director Michael Pearce acheives in this debut feature. There’s a distinctly literary vibe to Beast, nearly bordering on a Gothic horror tradition, that almost makes its modern setting feel anachronistic. The intense, primal attraction at the film’s core (sold wonderfully by actors Jessie Buckley & Johnny Flynn and the seedy murder mystery that challenges that passion’s boundaries make the film feel like Wuthering Heights by way of Top of the Lake. It’s the same dark, traditionally femme side of romantic literary traditions I’ve recently fallen for in both Marrowbone & Never Let Me Go, a cinematic vibe I wish were afforded more respectful attention. Pearce makes this undercelebrated tone his own by clashing the Natural imagery of Beast’s violent instincts with the modernity of neon-lit nightclubs and the ominous soundscapes provided by Jim Williams (who also scored last year’s coming of age horror Raw). The distinct nightmare logic of its protagonist’s stress dreams also justifies the horror genre label implied by the film’s (barely existent) advertising, even if its overall tone is close to a modern take on Beauty & the Beast (except with two beasts). Beast is an overwhelming sensual terror as much as it is a twisty murder mystery with a romantic core, an incredible accomplishment for an unknown’s debut feature.
Of course, by reading this review you’re guaranteeing that you cannot replicate the going-in-blind experience I personally had with Beast. That’s the nature of engaging with this stuff on the internet. All I can do is report is that I was happy to have a relatively context-free experience with the picture, which I believe deserves to be seen as big & loud as possible based on the strength of its imagery & sound design. I want more people to experience that pleasure for themselves before it disappears from theaters entirely. The more I promote its merits the more I’m diminishing its chance for an expectation-free audience, though, which is why this entire mode of communication is so inherently imperfect & self-conflicted.