Pearce’s thriller puts its couple before its killer

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Roxy Theatre
Opens July 13

Once every blue moon, a movie makes it to the multiplex based solely on quality. No big names, limited budget, no special effects — just solid writing and competent execution. That’s the case with Beast.

Beast made an impression in every film festival it played, including Toronto, London, and Sundance, enough to lock-in distribution around the world

The film’s setup wouldn’t be out of place in a slasher movie: Moll (Jessie Buckley), a young woman living a sheltered existence  in a bucolic town in Britain, breaks with her controlling family when she meets a handsome drifter, Pascal (Johnny Flynn, a rough-around-the-edges hunk). The relationship blossoms as a serial killer wreaks havoc. Is Pascal involved? Why is Moll so angry? How much pressure can the lovers withstand?

Director Michael Pearce cares much more about the damaged couple, who find solace in each other, than in whatever carnage is taking place. Information is dispensed in a manner calculated to keep the audience interested while inadvertently falling in love with the couple. The film eventually reveals itself as a whodunit, leading to a wild conclusion.

Pearce, who also wrote the script, shows tremendous maturity for a first-time feature filmmaker. I had the opportunity to discuss Beast with him over the phone.

Beast is getting a wide release. What is it about the film that’s striking a chord with audiences?

It has to do with having a relationship with genre and subverting expectations. You can’t do a straight genre film the way it used to be done. While using the same language, the movie needs to be about something. Beast is masquerading as a serial killer drama, but really it’s an investigation into a troubled young woman and how much you identify with her. You don’t see any murders on screen. This is strictly told from the point of view of a character that’s in the periphery of that story. Think of a sci-fi movie like Arrival, which is actually about a woman’s grief over her child.

Both Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn are blowing up — Buckley as the star of The Woman in White and Flynn as the male lead in Vanity Fair — but when you cast them, they weren’t household names. What about them got your attention?

There’s something very grounded and relatable about Jessie. She struck me as the kind of person that Moll could’ve become growing up in less dysfunctional circumstances. Jessie has this shamanistic ability to summon-up intense and complex emotions. Every scene is trying to reveal a new layer of the character: it makes the character more empathetic, but someone the audience feels less sure about.

I never imagine someone like Johnny would be right for the role. I was thinking of a more overbearing individual. I was afraid Johnny would be too much of a romantic leading man. Then it dawned on me that the most interesting aspect of Pascal is that he’s a shape-shifter, someone who can seduce you, but you don’t know if he’s Prince Charming or the big bad wolf.

Did you consider not telling the actors who the  killer is?

I had to be very clear with Jessie and Johnny. We needed that orientation to guide us. But I would make Johnny deliver the same lines as someone completely innocent — oppressed by a community looking for a scapegoat — and as a guilty party, cynically manipulating a young woman to obtain an alibi. Sometimes, as an innocent, he would look guiltier. In the editing room, we took out some information. Our intention was to make it less about the accumulation of clues and more about creating an emotional mystery, so the tension comes from how we feel about this guy.

Beast is a spoiler-sensitive film. Does it stress you out that the killer’s identity could be publicly revealed?

Most of the press has been sensitive. At the same time, different people have different perspectives about the film anyway. The problem is mitigated by the diversity of interpretations, all equally legitimate. This actually surprised me. I thought the ending was clear, and the question would be how you felt about the characters’ behaviour.