Michael Pearce's Beast is a quiet sort of thriller, a dark and disquieting mystery with its most pressing drama roiling beneath a comparatively placid surface. It has sensational elements common to its genre: As TV screens in the background remind us, a little girl has gone missing on this small island in the English Channel, which means we get the familiar sight of townsfolk tromping through heath or the floss or whatever they call fields over there, search parties rustling the weeds for any sign. Occasionally, Pearce stages an out-of-nowhere assault, but those attacks get quickly revealed as the nightmares/fantasies/memories of Moll (Jessie Buckley), a 27-year-old misfit. Any relief at the revelation that that violence is not going down in the film's present-day reality, though, gives way to the deeper horror about what Moll might be hiding.
Beast teases out the answers with a stubborn patience. Writer-director Pearce, making his feature debut, proves dedicated to a psychological naturalism. Moll falls for Pascal (Johnny Flynn), a working-class hunk who might relish killing the occasional animal but proves the rare young man not to treat her like damaged goods. The only problem: He's a suspect in that child's disappearance.
The suspense in Beast lies in us puzzling out who these two actually are. Is he the killer? Is she? Is this a case of a small-minded town assuming the worst about its aimless, alienated young people? Pearce understands that we're working this all out, and he cunningly makes all these possibilities seem likely at the same time. The cost, though, of creating the circumstances in which we have room to wonder is that that leaves these characters vaguely sketched.