The Human Animal

Movie Review: Beast (Dir. Michael Pearce)

This is a movie about what seethes beneath our civilized veneer, and it telegraphs this theme in various ways. The title. The opening voiceover about killer whales–they look like they’re smiling, but when they get tired of smiling, they’ll eat you. A character’s comment on a book about animals: that it’s missing an entry on humans. (The character soon comes under investigation for several abominable crimes.) Yet the “beastly,” as it is treated in the film, is not just the dark side of humanity, always waiting to break free, the evil to be guarded against. Pearce’s vision is more complex, provocative, and disturbing than that.

The protagonist is Moll, a young woman with a vital physical presence–solid, strong, curly red hair that flames in the light–but who, when we meet her, is cowed, trapped, in a girlish light yellow dress, and being admonished to civility by her extremely tight-laced mother. We later discover all this is punishment for an early violent crime, terrified constraint to prevent it happening again. The current punishment is her birthday party; she is courted uncomfortably by her friend Clifford, a plump, awkward oaf, and subjected to her perfectly sweet-looking sister-in-law’s announcement that she is pregnant with twins. This is “civilization,” and Moll, after clenching her fist over a handful of glass she’s broken, flees it for the pounding music and sweaty groping of the local pub and dance hall.

She leaves at daybreak with a young man who then becomes too insistent, and is rescued by Pascal, a shaggily attractive specimen who carries the gun with which he’s been poaching hares. His uncouth manliness is liberation for Moll. When questioned about the reasons for her attraction, she says she likes the way he smells. Their first date is at the pub, and on their way home he leads her on a “shortcut” through the forest. She stops, and he asks if she’s afraid. We think she is and that she should be—since she and we have learned that a girl was just found raped and murdered. But she pulls him to the ground and they consummate their relationship, or, as one might say, f&*k. Perhaps she is afraid, but her desire–and the desire for the liberation he offered–are powerful enough for her to repress her fears. Or perhaps the fear is part of the attraction. Moll herself may not know.

Human beings, and especially philosophers, have tended historically to be unfair to animals, ascribing to the “animal” within us anything “uncivilized”–murderous, rapacious, cruel. But animals are none of these things (except maybe higher primates, those closest to us, like chimpanzees who are said to enjoy poking chickens through a fence with sticks). Animals kill and mate without reference to Kant’s categorical imperative or the dictates of Miss Manners, but they do not commit atrocities. They are neither moral nor immoral. Beastliness is a human phenomenon. But it is crucial that in this film it has a dual aspect—source of life as well as, potentially, of violent inhumanity. For some, like Moll’s sister, civilization is not, or no longer, veneer–“civilization” is all there is to her. For others, like Moll’s mother, those deeper, darker sources are fully identified with the demands of “civilization” and she seems inhuman in her own way. (We’re inclined to cheer when Moll and Pascal violate all the laws of decorum of her family’s country club.) The problem in this film is not just the beastly, but all the possible perversions of the relation between what lies beneath and the ways in which we channel and control it—or not.

[Spoiler warning.]

It turns out Pascal is a suspect in the murders, and Moll’s friend and hapless suitor Clifford is the investigator on the case. She confirms the false alibi Pascal gives. She believes in his innocence, she says. Again–does she? Does she know if she does? She is grilled by Clifford and another investigator, shown grisly photographs of the corpses; she maintains her story but the next day becomes sick to her stomach—because the photographs make the murders real to her? Because of the suspicion that her lover might be a murderer? Abruptly, another man, an immigrant, is convicted of the murders. Pascal is exonerated, but this is not the end.

The turning point comes in a sequence that begins when Moll tells Pascal that she wants–needs–to move away from the suffocating environment in which she’s been caged. Pascal, content with his life in Jersey, responds angrily, Moll’s suspicion shows through, he gets violent, choking her almost to death. She flees and shows up on Clifford’s doorstep, asks him how they knew the immigrant was the killer–looking, it would seem, for reassurance that Pascal is innocent of the murders, and if not perhaps ready to come back into the fold. The evidence falls short of iron proof; Moll confesses to Clifford that the alibi she had provided for Pascal was a lie. Rather than accepting her testimony and comforting her, Clifford snaps and throws her out, his own “animal” rage and envy finally overcoming his gentlemanly caretaking of Moll.

At this point she is as alone as a human being can be, and she needs to find the source of strength and action that will sustain her—that will allow her to go on at all. She goes to the place where one of the murdered girls was found, climbs into the excavated grave—puts dirt in her mouth, reenacting the girl’s suffocation. The act is primal, ritualistic, and she emerges changed—though precisely how we don’t immediately know. She returns to Pascal and apologizes, as does he, saying they can leave if she wants. They go to a restaurant to celebrate—and she tells them that she knows he is guilty, that she knows it because she is like him—and she will be with him only if he admits it, and says that it’s over. “It’s over,” he finally says—and then, “They meant nothing to me.” Their food arrives and he begins eating with appetite.

One of the strengths of the film is that it does not telegraph the meaning of what the characters say and do. My own sense is that up to this point, Moll may really have remained open to the possibility of a life with Pascal, if it turned out he was “like her”—that is, still human, repentant of a past and horrible transgression. But in that last line he reveals himself not as a beast but as a sociopath, which perhaps is to say he simply allows his violent drives their way without trying to constrain or integrate or transform them. Perhaps without even recognizing that he ought.

Driving away down a road through the wilderness, Moll asks Pascal to kiss her—and when he leans over, she seamlessly unbuckles his seat belt and yanks the steering wheel down, sending the car into a catastrophic spin. When she comes to, Moll crawls out of the car and finds Pascal mangled on the pavement but not dead. “I’m not like you,” she says, and bashes him to death as he tries to crawl away.

Moll was wrong about Pascal, but not wrong to follow that deep current that pulled her toward him—the “animal” within her. What will free us and what is dangerous may be the same thing—the unsocialized in human beings.

The final image is Moll rising to her feet after her violent act—dirty, bloody, wild-haired, but walking upright. Perhaps the most fully human of anyone we have seen—but if so, that too should leave us uneasy.

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