British writer-director Michael Pearce makes an impressive feature debut with "Beast," a psychological thriller about Moll (Jessie Buckley), a timid twenty-something woman whose desperate desire for escape leads her tumbling headlong into danger.
Stifled by life under the thumb of her snootily affluent family and domineering mother (Geraldine James), Moll cultivates her rebellious side as she strikes up a passionate romance with the mysterious Pascal (Johnny Flynn), a scruffy-haired, smolderingly charismatic loner with a passion for hunting.
Meanwhile, there's a serial killer on the loose who's been strangling young girls in the area -- all coincidentally right around Moll's age -- and Pascal just so happens to be a chief suspect in the investigation.
Moll's relationship with Pascal offers the hint of danger that she's been craving, and if she's able to utterly scandalize her family while she's at it, all the better. But "Beast" isn't just a simple whodunit, moving beyond its "Sleeping With the Enemy," B-movie premise as Peace peels back the layers of Moll's own impulse toward destruction.
We learn more details of an incident from her past, when she viciously stabbed a schoolmate who'd been bullying her with a pair of scissors. She claimed she was only defending herself, but that might just be one side of the story.
Pearce takes his time, and the film's deliberate pace gives the audience plenty of time to grow frustrated by Moll's spectacularly bad decisions. But we're always hooked thanks to Buckley's riveting performance. Shifting from wounded vulnerability to an increasingly animalistic rage, she gives this gothic horror story an unexpectedly potent bite.