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BEAST: 4 STARS. “set apart by the dynamics between its characters.”

For film fans “Beast” will seem both familiar and unsettlingly surprising, sometimes in the same scene. Cinemaniacs will recognize the story’s backbone, a woman who finds love with a serial killer, as echoes of films like “Badlands” and “Kalifornia.” What they may not expect is the nervy filmmaking and unexpected twists from first-time director Michael Pearce.

Loosely based on 1960s era serial sex offender Edward Paisnel, “Beast’s” dark story is set in a small community on the sun-dappled Jersey Islands. In recent weeks three teens have been killed and a fourth is missing from the tight-knit local town.

Twenty-seven-year old Moll (Jessie Buckley) lives at home, very much under the thumb of her controlling mother (Geraldine James). Troubled by an act of violence in her past she old rebels on the night of her birthday party, sneaking out to go dancing in town. On the way home she is assaulted by a guy she met at the dance but is rescued by Pascal (Johnny Flynn) who scares off the attacker with a hunting rifle. He drives her home and the two forge a bond. In Pascal she finds someone unlike anyone she has ever met. Just as they move in together he becomes the prime suspect in the local murders, forcing Moll to choose between the family she has always known and the man she loves. “Are you protecting Pascal because you think he’s innocent,” asks a police officer, “or are you doing it as another way to get even with the world?“

We’ve seen bad-boys-and-the-women-who-love-them stories before, but “Beast” is set apart by the dynamics of the relationship between Moll and Pascal. The star-crossed pair have chemistry to burn and, as far as the violence goes, suffice to say the beastly behaviour here is gender nonspecific.

The journey to the film’s dark heart is a tense one, packed with interesting character work from the ensemble cast and bleak thrills but it wouldn’t work without the leads performance. Buckley is a revelation. In her hands Moll is complex, fighting against any kind of outside control, from her family, the police, the community or even Pascal. Disturbed and disturbing, we rarely see a character simultaneously embody so much ferocity and ambiguity.

“Beast” deals in opacity. Less interested in the murders than the atmosphere they create in Moll and Pascal’s lives and the community as a whole, it’s a throwback to the psychological thrillers of Nicolas Roeg where interesting human behaviour and foreboding atmosphere trumps all.

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