In British filmmaker Michael Pearce’s debut film Beast, romance and brutal murder seem to come hand in hand. The psychological thriller is a compelling and twisted look into the maybe-complicit, maybe-manipulative relationship between Moll (Jessie Buckley) and the eccentric Pascal (Johnny Flynn), who meet under unusual circumstances and begin to fall for each other. But a smattering of local disappearances begin to raise eyebrows, and Moll’s stuffy family is not impressed by her strange new boyfriend. Set against the picturesque but isolated greenery of the isle of Jersey, and based on a real series of sex murders that took place there in the 1960s, Beast is both a windswept love story gone awry and a darkly ambiguous look into psychopathy. I spoke to the director about his first feature to learn more about finding the dark heart within the upper middle-class environs of English life.
Paste: As an American, I’m not too well-versed in the English class system or distinctions. But this film made it very clear—you can easily see the kind of family that Moll (Jessie Buckley) comes from. I wondered if you could tell me a bit about how you conceived her character & family background?
Michael Pearce: The film is loosely inspired by a true case. There was a guy called “the Beast of Jersey” who committed a lot of murders in the ’60s. I found out about that story when I was growing up in the ’80s, and I was so struck by how incongruous it seemed that these murders were happening on such an idyllic island. Also, years later when I was researching the film, I found out he had a wife who never knew. So I became really interested in that and the duality of how you can have a seemingly functional relationship with someone but they can go off and do these awful things. You have a family with a duality that seems very wholesome and upright, but behind the curtain it’s quite dysfunctional & hostile.
Paste: Totally. And the worse Moll’s family seems, the more inclined we are to want her romance with Pascal.
Pearce:The film would not work if you weren’t on their side. We needed to make the audience complicit in their love story, even if it leaves question marks hanging over them. There’s a sweet spot I really like in films as an audience member, where I’m in a place of jeopardy with regard to my investment in the characters. How much I should be behind them or questioning them?
Paste: I have to talk about the casting in this film because I think the leads are perfect. Could you tell me about the casting and developing the performances?
Pearce:We responded to Jessie Buckley as a person—she’s very grounded, very natural. She’s relatable and spirited. I felt like she was the kind of person Moll would be if she hadn’t grown up in such a dysfunctional family. I thought it’d be interesting because we’d sense someone more alive behind the eyes trying to get out. As for Johnny Flynn, the most interesting thing about [his character] Pascal is that he’s a shapeshifter. In some ways he’s playing both the romantic lead and the potential antagonist. So we needed someone who could seduce us, but could also frighten us. And Johnny has a very enigmatic face. If you light it one way, it can look quite sinister, and in another way, he seems like a cherub. But we had a lot of time in pre-production to talk, and we’d share books, films. We were stocking up each other’s subconscious with ideas, and in the process, we were fine-tuning our creative frequencies. So we had a great creative shorthand on set, because we had quite protracted discussion beforehand.
Paste: What kinds of films did you share with the cast?
Pearce: A lot of portrayals of psychopaths on film I felt were quite untruthful to the research I’d done. Because you’d always know they were psychopaths. They always seemed villainous. So I actually told Johnny one of my favorite portrayals of a psychopath in a film is Patrick Swayze in Point Break. Of course he’s lower on the spectrum! It’s not like he commits sexually sadistic murders. But when I was a teenager, I wanted to be Bodie. It’s only when I was an adult that I realized he was a cold, manipulative, calculating psychopath. That seems more truthful because the character had kind of put me under a spell. The same way that psychopaths do to victims.
Paste: There’s a wonderful ambiguity in the latter part of the film. Is Moll projecting her own issues on Pascal? Is he just giving her what she needs to hear? Is she trying to fool him into confessing? I wondered while you were writing, did you have a set outcome in mind?
Pearce: I really excavate the characters and try to reveal their layers. Inevitably, as they get a life of their own and become more interesting, they go on a journey that’s more than the story I’ve laid out. So, frustratingly, they go in a different direction. I found that mid-way through writing. Traditionally in these films you have procedure. Someone finding the bloody knife hidden in the back garden. And this was not about that—it’s an investigation into a character. Through the movie, I really liked the idea that the audience would be presented with progressively more ways to interpret the film. Is this a woman courageously defending an innocent man? Is that what we’re watching? Or is she blinded by love, and doesn’t care if he’s innocent or guilty?
We have a very specific take on what happened and why. But we try to leave enough room, so it could kill equally legitimate interpretations. Who knows? I think hopefully there are more sophisticated interpretations than the intended one, which can often happen.
Paste: Each moviegoer brings their own biases and background to the cinema, I suppose. For me, I found myself so charmed by Pascal’s character I didn’t want to think he was bad.
Pearce: It’s amazing what a charming personality can do to mute other concerns and suspicions. I find too often in films, the bad guy is so clearly villainous. And life is more complex than that. Sometimes the monster has the face of an angel.
Christina Newland is a writer on film and culture for VICE, Esquire, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, and others. She’s a displaced New Yorker in love with ’70s Hollywood and boxing flicks.