Set in the tight-knit communities and pastoral landscapes of Jersey’s coastal towns and villages, Beast is an intelligent, gripping and emotionally rich psychological thriller which unfolds with dramatic and unpredictable precision. The film follows Moll – a young woman stifled in an oppressive home, ruled by an uncompromising matriarch – as she gradually begins to assert her independence, detangling herself from her dysfunctional family with the help of an enticing and dangerous outsider. Starved of emotional oxygen, Moll’s companion offers hope for a newly emancipated life, until a slew of brutal murders smothers the island under a pall of fear and suspicion.
Inspired by the crimes of Edward Paisnel – the real life Beast of Jersey who, over the course of 10 years, brutally attacked 13 women and children in their homes late at night, dressed in a rubber mask and nail-studded wristlets – Michael Pearce’s feature debut revels in the flaws and cracks that sit just beneath the surface of Jersey’s idyllic facade. As the story unfolds, one-by-one Beast exposes the cruel, controlling and, at times, unhinged impulses of its central cast of characters, completely destabilizing the audience’s understanding of right and wrong, hero and villain. Ahead of the film’s release nationwide this week, we spoke to the BAFTA and BIFA-nominated writer/director to find out more about the island’s most infamous killer, how it captured his childhood imagination and why he felt compelled to use it as the basis for his anti-heroine origin story.
Could you talk to me about The Beast of Jersey? When did you first hear stories about him?
I found out about that story when I was about 8 or 9. He committed these crimes in the 60s and got away with it for 10 years. Even though I grew up in the 80s he became the bogeyman, it continued to haunt the island and I think it made a big impact on me because it was the moment I realised monsters do exist and they’re not just in books or on TV, they could be your next door neighbour. It was so incongruous, how horrific these crimes were, with the otherwise fairytale environment of Jersey and my childhood growing up there. It felt very quaint, very safe, it’s very beautiful and I couldn’t quite marry those crimes with my childhood home.
A small island like Jersey, was it the kind of thing everyone had a connection to in one way or another?
I think when you’re a kid and you hear that story you begin to make stuff up about it. We used it to scare one another, don’t go into those woods because that’s where the Beast of Jersey attacked someone. It became part of the folklore because your childhood imagination runs with it, you twist it and warp it and reinvent it. It made a big impact on my childhood imagination.
The idyllic setting and the landscape of your childhood feels like an important influence for the film. Were there any other aspects of the story that you developed from personal experience?
We shot on the west of the island which is where I grew up, I know the landscape really well. The film is as much a love story as it is a psychological thriller, so I suppose I was returning to some of the places where I had my first love. I’d watch the waves crashing along the sea wall, it’s remained a very romantic image for me – in a way, it captured for me the feeling of falling in love. Equally when I was a kid I was kicked out of the golf club because I was wearing the wrong trousers, I was an adolescent at the time and I remember thinking it’d be such a cool thing to do, to pick up a golf club and smash it into the green. When writing Beast I was trying to dive into certain impressions, feelings and things that I’d experienced – or things I wanted to experience – to inform the story. It was also a way for me to mitigate against falling into the cliches of a traditional, procedural crime story. Of course I heightened them and amplified them, but a lot of those moments happened to me.
The rebellion Moll experiences, is that something that also came from your personal experience?
I had a very good relationship with my family. It’s not completely invented, sometimes I’d go round to a friend’s house and I would see how they’d be very deferential to their parents and that there was a very specific hierarchy within the family – even as a 10 year old kid witnessing that I found it quite strange, it was very different to how I grew up. When I was writing the story I thought about how hostile families can be, it’s so common that families are dysfunctional. I wanted to create a family where it seemed quite wholesome and affluent on the outside, but as soon as you peered behind the curtain you see it’s a very dysfunctional place with a very specific hierarchy. I wanted to create a story where the lead character has to be very deferential to their parents, which in turn makes this seemingly safe place become a prison.
That danger – the menacing, hidden within an idyllic exterior takes many forms throughout the film...
You could say that everyone in the film is somewhere on the psychopathic spectrum. I find it hard to think about heroes and villains, the complexity of who we are isn’t contained in those two figures. Maybe they do exist, I’m just not interested in exploring them as characters. My general rule of thumb is that if you don’t empathise with your character, you haven’t worked hard enough to understand them, but equally if you don’t see the flaws in the character you haven’t worked hard enough to uncover them. With all of the characters, Moll included, who’s effectively our protagonist for most of the movie, I want you to connect with them, but for your relationship to become more complicated as the film wears on. It’s the same with Pascale, I want us to be drawn to him and to be supportive of their love story but not to make him Prince Charming. I want you to constantly question, “what happens if this is the wrong guy?” There’s question marks hanging over all the characters. There’s no real investigation in the film, it’s not a procedural, we’re more interested in the tensions within and between each character. It’s about questioning our allegiance to them. It’s more of an emotional thriller than anything else.
You’ve talked about wanting to create more of a tradition of anti-heroines as opposed to just anti-heroes, could you talk me through that?
There were a couple of older female-led Hitchcock films, like Shadow Of A Doubt, Suspicion, Marnie, and a film by Claude Chabrol called Le Boucher which influenced Beast. It wasn’t so much the way this film is told, more the aesthetic of it. I was inspired by Badlands or David Lynch or Lynne Ramsay or Jane Campion. It was only through writing the film that I realised most of the anti-heroines I could list were from literature, I couldn’t think of many original film anti-heroines. Lisbeth Salander, Lady Macbeth, Catherine from Wuthering Heights or Carrie, or Amy Dunne – all are films based on books, and I thought that was quite strange culturally. By contrast some of the most interesting characters in film are anti-heroes. Corleone or Travis Bickle, Daniel Plainview, William Munny, there’s such a diversity when it comes to male roles. Original female anti-heroes in cinema are a bit more limited.
How did you approach the character of Moll when developing her as the film’s anti-hero?
I was thinking about fairy tales a lot – some are quite conservative, Prince Charming saving the damsel in distress, but in others like Rumpelstiltskin the woman uses her ingenuity to outwit the creature. I thought about starting the film with Moll as a damsel in distress instead of ending there – by the end of the film we realise we’ve watched the origin story of an anti-heroine.
In that way, is the film making a larger point about the need for women, and female characters in film, to exist as autonomous individuals?
I don’t want to cynically exploit this moment to give the film greater cultural cache, but in some ways I suppose it does. I started writing it six years ago, before #MeToo and #TimesUp, so it’s not necessarily a response to what’s happening right now, but I do feel that it’s incredibly important to have better representation on screen. We need richer, more complex female characters. I think it’s crazy for that to be a unique part of this film.
And Jessie Buckley seems perfectly suited to the role...
There was something very elemental, very grounded and unfussy about Jesse. She’s got this uncanny, almost shamanistic ability to summon these rich, complicated emotions in a short space of time. Moll is someone who’s gasping for emotional oxygen and Jesse’s very spirited person, so I thought it’d be interesting to put Jesse in the straitjacket of this character. A character works on screen when there’s an interesting collision between character and actor – Jessie is so liberated as a person, so I wanted to put her in the skin of someone who’s living in a prison.