A darkly gripping tale of love and murder, writer-director Michael Pearce’s feature debut Beast explores the need for freedom and the danger it can represent.
Played by Jessie Buckley, Moll is a young woman living on the island of Jersey who is constantly belittled by her upper-class family and those around her. Her mother Hilary (a gracefully sinister Geraldine James) alternates between calling her stupid and selfish and insisting that the two of them are best friends. Her brother berates her for not caring for their ailing father while he himself neglects his daughter, and her sister overshadows Moll at her own birthday party. Moll seems to be drifting through life with no real purpose or ambition beyond insisting that her job as a guide of the island’s bus tours is “only temporary”. It’s little wonder why she is immediately struck by the rough and unrefined stranger Pascal Renouf, a hunter and craftsman who works with his hands and seems utterly unconcerned with the difference in social status between him and Moll. Johnny Flynn as Pascal certainly makes for a compelling figure with his scarred face, lidded eyes, and one of the best character introductions I’ve seen all year – defending Moll from the unwanted advances of a man by firing his rifle into the ground without a word or change in expression. He’s even defined by his smell, a rare character element within film, as Hilary’s insult that she could “smell him a mile away” becomes a recurring trait that Moll uses to distinguish him from the others around her. The relationship that develops between the two seems to offer Moll an opportunity to break free of her family’s confines, but when Pascal becomes the leading suspect in a series of assaults and murders on the island Moll’s desire to stay with him is tested by the hostility she receives from the rest of the community and her own fears of what he may be capable of.
Beast is largely a character study of Moll and she’s one of the richest and most multifaceted protagonists I’ve seen in film for a long time. At the beginning of the film she seems like a quiet and innocent girl – singing in the church choir and wearing a pristine buttercup yellow dress at her birthday party – yet her desire to feel something real manifests through self-destructive actions such as deliberately grinding glass shards into her hand. The more we learn about her past the more we understand the darkness and rage within her that she struggles to resist. She constantly insists that she’s “a good person” but it’s as if she’s trying to convince herself each time she repeats it. It raises the question of what about Pascal she’s drawn to, as what first seems like love starts to resemble defiance or even a desire for danger. It’s a phenomenal role for Jessie Buckley and a career-making performance as she gives Moll fragility, determination, spirit, and something vaguely threatening. With so much of the story told through Moll’s perspective even when Pearce gives us an answer as to whether or not Pascal is guilty I remained unsure if it was the right one or just what Moll had decided was true, leading to an ending that I’m still trying to decide my own interpretation of.
The Jersey coastline and forests look gorgeous through Benjamin Kracun’s cinematography – with still and isolated wide shots that seem to swallow the characters, while the more personal moments are filmed in close proximity with shaky, unbalanced movements. There are a few too many moments where I felt Pearce was teasing his audience with manipulative surprise dream sequences to demonstrate Moll’s fears, particularly when Buckley does such outstanding work expressing Moll’s emotions without the need for them, but this could be a consequence of the director moving from shorts to a feature film and unsure how to keep the pace up. For the most part, though, Beast is a powerful and confronting experience that suggests great things are on the horizon for both its leading actors and its director.
Lynne Ramsay is a director who uses every filmmaking tool at her disposal to put her audience right into a character’s emotional state, and Joaquín Phoenix has been on a roll lately of delving deep into the psychology of conflicted, withdrawn men, so the team up of the two artists in You Were Never Really Here is just as dark, thought-provoking, and immersive as one would expect.
Phoenix’s presence is felt throughout nearly every scene as he lumbers, slow and heavy, through a cruel and intense world – gaining a significant amount of weight and bulk to fill the enormous figure of an ex-soldier suffering severe PTSD. The character, known only as ‘Joe’, finds both work and an outlet for his most violent impulses by seeking abducted children and punishing those who take them. “McCleary said you were brutal”, a prospective client notes. Joe sits in silence for a moment, his face blank and gaze averted. His response is simple and detached: “I can be.” The violence of You Were Never Really Here comes out in sudden bursts, flashes of rage glimpsed briefly through security camera monitors or shown only in the aftermath. On the surface the film seems like a revenge-thriller but Ramsey’s screenplay and Phoenix’s performance make it clear that Joe’s aggression is nothing more than a highly destructive release for his own inner turmoil. There’s nothing righteous about the violence, but it’s the only way Joe can cope with his past trauma. What made Joe this way is never explicitly stated and shown only through momentary flashbacks, but we see just enough to begin to understand him.
The plot largely focuses on Joe’s attempts to rescue the daughter of a New York State Senator, and the conspiracy he winds up involved in as a result. Ekaterina Samsonov as Nina is a beautiful representation of both innocence and its corruption, and the relationship that forms between her and Joe in their brief scenes together resembles that of De Niro’s Travis Bickle and Jodie Foster as Iris in Taxi Driver. Indeed much of You Were Never Really Here plays as a blend of Scorsese’s classic and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, with the classic story of a tormented figure struggling to find redemption or purpose. There are moments of peace and happiness within the bleak world Ramsay presents, particularly moments with Joe’s mother (a scene-stealing Judith Roberts) where Joe manages a semblance of a normal life, but they are gone all too fast as Joe is thrust back into the darkness.
You Were Never Really Here is a film made with exquisite skill in every department under the capable direction of Lynne Ramsay. Ramsay and cinematographer Tom Townend know just when to use a close-up and when to stay back, letting action play out in beautifully framed shots or putting the audience up close to just see what remains of a horrible incident. Johnny Greenwood’s score alternates between pulsing, thumping, and screeching as it suggests the sounds going on within Joe’s own mind. Phoenix’s best-actor win at 2017’s Cannes Film Festival was well-deserved for the way he holds in all of Joe’s pain, showing it only through the subtlest of facial shifts until the moments when it bursts forth. Special mention must also be made of the sound design, with the sound of Joe’s footsteps given additional impact and weight as he carries himself forward one step at a time. Admittedly the dialogue is so quiet at times it’s easy to lose, particularly with Phoenix mumbling nearly every word, and there were times I nearly missed vital information. Yet it also demonstrated how in the hands of the right director and actor the dialogue can be almost unnecessary, as even if I missed the words I never lost sense of the tone Ramsay has created or the message she was trying to convey.
4 and a half stars.
The success of James Wan’s The Conjuring back in 2013 was a major factor in reminding studios of the market for classic supernatural horrors, and with a sequel and three spin-offs it’s clear that New Line Cinemas is trying to get as much out of this bankable franchise as possible. Unfortunately, if The Nun is any indication, this is another horror series that’s fast running out of ideas and in danger of containing more bad films than good ones.
After two spin-offs focusing on The Conjuring’s creepy Annabelle doll The Nun instead turns to the antagonist from The Conjuring 2, a demonic figure that prefers to present itself in a mockingly warped version of the classic hooded nun. While this spectre had some admittedly creepy moments in The Conjuring 2, it doesn’t really have any new tricks on display here – spending most of its screen time standing at the end of hallways, floating ominously towards the camera, or roaring at nothing in particular. Horror movie antagonists can usually get by with little more than the occasional creepy appearance provided that the scares are good and the story is interesting, but both these qualities are lacking here.
In a Romanian monastery the attempts of two nuns to stop the demonic influence slowly spreading through the area ends with one killed by the creature and the other committing suicide to prevent it from possessing her. In response, the Vatican sends Father Burke, a cynical priest and one of the few capable in performing exorcisms, and initiate nun Sister Irene to investigate whether or not the ground of the monastery is still holy and determine what motivated the suicide of Sister Victoria (Charlotte Hope). To get there they rely on help from ‘Frenchie’, a French-Canadian living in the area that delivers food to the monastery and discovered Sister Irene’s body. When they arrive at the monastery the already slow-moving plot grinds to almost a complete stop as they are forced to wait around while occasionally seeing glimpses of the other inhabitants and moving from jump-scare to jump-scare. There’s no narrative tension or sense of urgency, and things only really start to pick up in the last twenty minutes as director Corin Hardy rushes through a loud and sometimes laughable conclusion to reach for an ending that can vaguely link this story to the Warren family from the main series. The main cast provided little to draw me in any further, with Demián Bichir imbuing Father Burke with minimal characterisation beyond an impressive scowl and raspy voice while Taissa Farmiga goes the opposite direction with a wide-eyed earnestness that never really makes Sister Irene’s reactions to anything seem real. Jonas Bloquet is more enjoyable as the shotgun-swinging womaniser Frenchie, but his character feels more like he’s stepped out of Brendan Fraiser’s Mummy series than the dark and demonic world of the Conjuring films – particularly as any tension the film may build is immediately lost when a character cries out for ‘Frenchie’.
There are a few decent ideas for scary moments in The Nun, aided by the gorgeous production design of the Romanian monastery setting, but the execution regularly falls flat as Gary Dauberman’s script moves from one to the other with nothing linking them. The characters repeatedly end up separated due to someone seeing something in the distance and blindly wandering off after it, and even before the credits had finished rolling I’d found myself forgetting what had happened in certain scenes due to how sloppily the film jumps between the characters in its attempt to deliver three scares at once. Bonnie Aarons as the titular Nun does have a suitably creepy presence, and there’s plenty of religious imagery and practices for Hardy to turn sinister, but those who were impressed by the character in her first appearance would probably have a better time re-watching The Conjuring 2.
1 and a half stars.