Moral Animalistic Ambiguity and Michael Pearce’s Beast

Hitchcock was a genius in many regards, but perhaps above all others was his ability to conjure a genuine mystery. Films like VertigoPsycho, and Strangers on a Train were perfect examples of maintaining suspense through characters who were morally ambiguous. This uncertainty about a character was a kind of bargaining tool for the audience. It asked them to look within themselves and decide, based on their own experience, whether this person or character was truly morally corrupt or whether they were just led to believe they may be. This technique was an easy way to keep the audience on the edge of their seat and invested in the matters at hand. It’s been done poorly before and it’s also been done well before. But I can think of no film that I’ve seen which challenges your instinctual morality quite like Michael Pearce’s Beast. The film’s main characters (and really most of the other characters) are great representations of the ambiguity of human morality, constantly leaving you with an uncertainty in whether or not you should endorse their actions.  Though it’s clear Pearce has his own opinion, the challenge he poses also lies with the idea of an instinctual morality versus a trained one. The movie was the thickest hour and forty-five minutes of flickering images I have ever seen (in a good way). And I sat through Zootopia. The sheer amount to questions that Pearce’s film produces makes it a all-too-complicated film to dissect in just one post. Besides the fact that I knew nothing going into the film, I still felt like I knew very little leaving. Nevertheless, Beast challenges you to question your own morals in an uncomfortable exercise in self-reflection. Pearce poses a fascinating question for the audience to dwell on. What’s worse – a bad person that does good things or a good person that does some bad things?

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Hitchcock was the master at creating genuinely eerie characters who, despite their sunshiny demeanor, were actually villainous. It was a great leap in character complexity from the days of The Great Train Robbery. Now we’re sort of trained to look out for characters like these, which is why every time a seemingly bad character turns out to be good, we have this revelatory ‘Ah ha!’ moment. If you’re lost, I think we all had a collective moment like that the moment we learned that Snape was actually one hell of a good guy in Harry Potter. Or that guy from Guardians of the Galaxy who is like Peter’s pseudo-dad! Plenty of other examples, but they all play on the same expectation.

The film is centered around troubled Moll. Moll lives on the remote British Isle of Jersey (the original one) with her overbearing mother, handicapped father, and judgmental siblings. She works as a bus tour operator and hates her job, but doesn’t have much in the way of mobility (considering it’s an isolated community and all). But everything changes when, after a wild night of drinking and partying, she finds herself saved from a near-sexual assault at the hands of a blonde, scraggy-bearded country bumpkin by a different blonde, scraggly-bearded country bumpkin. But this nicer one has a dead rabbit in his car, so he is automatically more trustworthy! This sexy rogue gentleman, who of course has the sexy rogue name “Pascal”, says very little about himself or his life, generating a great deal of intrigue from our vulnerable Moll. Of course, being a creepy societal outsider really does him no favors and draws ire from pretty much everyone else in Moll’s life, including her detective friend Clifford. Clifford feels so strongly about this that he even decides to let her in on his own little theory: Pascal is responsible for the brutal murders (and sexual assaults) of disappearing little girls around the island. But, naturally, Moll knows Pascal better than anyone else (and likes him better than anyone else), so what could a single count of battery (as revealed by Clifford) really say about the charming man in front of her now? Pascal is Pearce’s first hurdle for the audience in terms of moral ambiguity. The moment he reveals the dead rabbit in his trunk (he poached it) falls right after he saves Moll from a near sexual assault. So Pearce presents us with a little heroism and a little corruption side by side. And these only begin to mount. In a later scene, we see Pascal come to see Moll perform with the church choir at a community picnic. He seems like the charming, all-too-wonderful boyfriend type any girl could dream about. Her mother had just finished criticizing her performance and no one seems to want to engage her at a communal event except the charming vagabond. A few minutes later outside the festivities, they see two men holding another man up by the neck. The men explain that they have reason to suspect that this foreigner (he’s Portugese) is a prime suspect in the murder of the little girls. Moll tries to get them to leave him alone, arguing that they have an inherent bias, but that one enrages them further and they threaten her. Pascal, showing a little bit of his hothead side, begins to beat the hell out of these guys until the police ultimately step in. Because of this, Pascal shows Mol that he’s no angel, but then again she’s no saint herself. 

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What a nice mom! Or so it seems. At the beginning of this movie, I legitimately thought she was going to be the primary villain. Despite her not featuring as prominently, her little time on screen did give me the chills. But then again, what should I have expected? It’s always the mother.

Eventually, Moll reveals to Pascal (and the audience) her own internal struggles. As a young teen, she came at another girl with scissors and hurt her pretty badly. Not only did it cause the entire community to question her character, but her to question her own character as well. You see, as much as we’re supposed to identify with Moll as the main character, she definitely does some things we shouldn’t endorse as an audience. The very first scene we really get to see her in, she’s at her birthday and sadly is getting no attention. This is a sad place to be for anyone, much less this girl who has a really awful family dynamic to begin with. That being said, there are a number of reasonable ways to handle these situations. The wrong way? Run away from it all, get drunk, and run away with a stranger you met at a bar. As much as it relieves her pain, it’s way more of a flight response than a fight one. And it’s heeding to this instinct that gets her in trouble. In fact, it’s giving into that animalistic instinct that got her in so much trouble in the first place. It’s what caused her to cut that girl in her youth. In fact, Pearce uses animals as a prominent and symbolic motif throughout the film. For instance, in the opening scene, the very first words we hear onscreen come from Moll who is giving an overlaid monologue about how Killer Whales in captivity tend to go so crazy, they will grind their teeth down to dust. As we learn more about the story, we can easily apply this to the chaos within Mol’s own mind regarding her own life on Jersey. Moll is stuck on this small, relatively remote island and I’ve read that kind of living situation can drive a person a little mental after a while. Must be such a bummer for those Hawaiians (or Tristan de Cunhan folk)! Regardless, the isolated and (at least from what I gather) un-urban setting provides an excellent backdrop for the animal motifs. In constantly tying Moll and others to these animal counterparts, Pearce forces us to confront one of the more difficult parts of being human: morality. 

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This behind-the-scene image did not come from the wrap party where lead actress Jessie Buckley indulged in too much celebratory cake. Instead, it came from a particularly harrowing scene where Moll simulates the dying position of one of these murdered girls. Sidebar, how much does director Michael Pearce look like the main guy in this movie? Coincidence? I think not!

One of the more chilling and revealing scenes in the film has Pascal take Moll on one of his hunting excursions. At this point in their relationship, Moll has decided that Pascal is just one of those bad boys that mom’s love to hate and she’s loving every minute of it. Every black mark against him is kind of brushed aside as neighborhood gossip stemming from the stigmatization of the local outcast. So when he invites her on an illegal hunting trip, she’s happy to oblige. In the woods of Jersey they spot a rabbit and he tells her to shoot where she thinks it will be, rather than where it is. Of course she hits her mark, but not fatally, forcing her to confront her deed head on. Staring down at a not-yet-dead rabbit she just shot seems to be a moment of reckoning for Moll as this innocent creature has had it’s life cruelly taken away with her own two hands (and a bullet). For the audience, it calls to attention all the killings of innocent little girls that have been going on across the island and it definitely places Pascal’s apathy in a compromising light. Pascal aside, what’s more interesting is what the situation says about Moll. She has to put the rabbit out of it’s misery and, in doing so, has to grapple with the moral consequences of her actions. She really struggles with justifying the killing, empathizing with the animal as it twitches to death, which sits in stark contrast to Pascal who plays the whole situation off as more of a circumstance of nature. When we finally get to the end of the film and the killer of the children is revealed, the rabbit scene is recreated with an interesting twist: the killer is the (metaphorical) rabbit. In the final scene, the killer has been injured badly enough to where they cannot stand and end up twitching around like the rabbit in the woods from earlier. Moll, who is in some way responsible for their current state, has to decide what to do next. The big difference is this: the rabbit was innocent of being a simple animal and the killer was guilty of being a complex one.

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Beast spends a lot of time tackling some heavy moral conundrums. And Moll often struggles to relate to her fellow humans (at least the one’s around her), making it difficult to properly face these. But here in a moment of tenderness, she exhibits a bit of that (despite the concern written all over her face)!

But morality is one of those traits that makes us uniquely human and Pearce knows that. It’s the reason that every seemingly-decent character in the film goes ahead and does something morally reprehensible to make you hate them. Moll is a kind and gentle soul, seeking reconciliation for past wrong and yet she almost killed a woman with scissors. Pascal is the kind savior of a damsel in distress and yet he beats a guy senseless at a public gathering. Moll’s mother is a doting, protective mother and yet she physically punished her daughter for being independent. Moll’s siblings are well-respected members of the community and yet they spend their time gossiping and judging people behind their backs. Moll’s father is…well he’s actually perfectly innocent (but also completely unaware of his surroundings due to his handicap). Even the adult townspeople seem like perfectly welcoming, fine folk and yet they turn into an angry, racist mob picking on any outsider when faced with this killing crisis. But perhaps the most interesting character of the bunch is Clifford (the detective). From the moment we see him, he just seems like the sweetest guy. He’s the only one who comes to Moll’s birthday bringing happiness (partly because he’s crushing on her). She’s not that excited that this guy fancies her, but she appreciates the gesture anyways. Throughout the film, he stays by her side during the investigation. Sure it’s a huge blow that she’s dating the guy he’s pretty sure is a serial murderer, but she’s always been his dream girl! But even his character takes a huge blow in the final act of the film. In the scene, Moll comes to see him to tell him that she has come around to have her own suspicions regard Pascal due to his shifty behavior as of late. And Clifford seems to listen intently…at first. But by the end of their encounter, he berates her and comes within a threateningly close distance of his own, finally unleashing his burdened anger for being scorned by her so many times. It’s a sad moment for the audience because he really does seem redeemable. Ultimately it serves as Pearce’s way of showing that there truly isn’t a soul out there who is immune towards that darker side. 

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Beast is the equivalent of swallowing “the big pill”. It’s kind of painful and difficult to get through without cringing. But the effects from the (completely satisfying) ending will leave you celebrating your own humanity with a bit more fervor. Plus, you’ll have the added benefit of finding this hidden gem that probably few people will actually hear about.

People, by there very nature are both good and bad. Some movies may be more blatant about who is which, but the more interesting characters have a mix of both. The most interesting characters keep their morality a mystery. It was what worked for Hitchcock so well in his classics and it’s the same tactic Pearce employs with almost all of his characters in Beast. It appeals to apart of humanity that is distinct and important – our ability to toss away instinct and determine right from wrong. Good people do some bad things. It’s human and we err. But if in our conscious nature, we do something with complete disregard for another’s feelings (even if instinctual), how are we any better than an animal acting off it’s own instincts? If we start acting like that we might as well call ourselves beasts.

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