Two damaged souls find each other in Michael Pearce’s disturbing debut Beast, while Valeska Grisebac cleverly plays with cinematic tropes and expectations in Western
Beast (15) ****
Western (12A) ****
The Deminer (15) ****
After the relentless tweeness of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society last week, the Channel Islands provide the setting for an altogether darker, more disturbing and considerably better film in the Jersey-set Beast. The debut feature from Michael Pearce – who grew up on the island – it’s an intriguing and absorbing psychological drama that retains a pleasing air of ambiguity as its serial killer-inflected premise gives way to a more nuanced character study. It also provides up-and-coming Irish actress Jessie Buckley with a star-making role.
She plays Moll, a 27-year-old tour guide living a stultifying life with her upper middle-class family. An opening voiceover – inspired, perhaps, by the documentary Blackfish – likens her existence to that of a killer whale in captivity and we soon come to understand that her perfect-from-the-outside life has been deliberately constructed in a way that constricts her sense of freedom for her own good – or, at least, her own good as far as her mother (Geraldine James) sees it. Allusions to a violent trauma from her childhood are evident in the way that family members and friends handle any interaction with her, which may be one reason why she connects so strongly with local gamekeeper and handyman Pascal (Johnny Flynn) when he rescues her early one morning from a rapidly souring encounter with a guy she’s just spent the night dancing with in a club.
A rugged, handsome, scar-strewn outsider, Pascal is – like her – treated with suspicion by the more gentrified locals, despite having more claim to local status than them; but he’s also been questioned in an ongoing investigation into the disappearance and murder of a number of young women and Moll seems to take an almost perverse thrill in giving him an alibi when the latest body is uncovered.
Pearce keeps the murders in the background and focuses his energies instead on turning the film into an expertly structured guessing game, raising doubts about Pascal’s innocence and subverting thriller conventions by making Moll a somewhat unreliable observer of her own life. It’s an auspicious debut, confidently directed, brilliantly acted and unsettling to the last frame.
The title of Valeska Grisebach’s third feature, Western, is designed to bring to mind all the tropes associated with the eponymous movie genre. Revolving around a group of German construction workers who arrive in the somewhat hostile environs of Bulgaria to build a dam, it features unruly men living out some retrogressive cowboy fantasy version of themselves as a civilising force in a primitive country, forced to grapple with what they deem to be backward locals who don’t appreciate the value of modern infrastructure.
But as it zeroes in on quiet, considerate outsider Meinhard (played by Meinhard Neumann), who distances himself from his brash co-workers and befriends the Bulgarian villagers, the film doesn’t just use the structure of the western to expose the toxic masculinity wrapped up in neocolonialist ideas of progress. It also uses it to question the myth-making traditions of western cinema as a whole – especially its addiction to action, plot and easily won catharsis – by stripping the story of any obvious artifice and using non-actors and poetic realism to draw us into the story instead.
The result is a sometimes absorbing, sometimes inscrutable, but always compelling exploration of the complex ways people try to define themselves in a world where the old certainties have been dismantled and reassembled so many times they’ve become meaningless. Neumann – whom Grisebach found after auditioning 600 non-actors – does remarkable work here as Meinhard, whose sinewy figure and soulful eyes make him seem simultaneously part of the landscape and alienated from it. That’s appropriate. A searcher with a mysterious past (he’s spent time in the Foreign Legion and has experienced some hinted-at family tragedy), his character is on some higher existential quest that he can’t quite articulate but which he nevertheless feels intensely and deeply. And as the film builds to a low-key showdown, one that doesn’t go in the direction one might expect, it’s his battered and bruised face that Grisebach focuses on: the character’s dignified resignation to the banality of the closing moments functioning as a quietly subversive rejection of western exceptionalism and all its destructive associations.
Following Fakhir, an Iraqi bomb disposal expert whose dedication to his mission sees him disarming thousands of explosives with only a pair of wire-cutters, The Deminer offers a nerve-shredding look at the daily hazards of post-Saddam Iraq. What makes Hogir Hirori and co-director Shinwar Kamal’s documentary so penetrating and unique though – even in the wake of acclaimed feature films such as The Hurt Locker and Kajaki – is how matter-of-fact living and working in such a high-risk environment becomes. Constructed from amateur footage shot by Fakhir’s colleagues – who are often to be heard imploring him to “be careful” as he cavalierly snips wires, unearths pots full of explosives and enters abandoned buildings wired with IEDs – its easy to get swept along by the sense of invincibility the camera seems to confer upon its subjects. And it’s that false sense of security that makes the story of Fakhir – known as “Crazy Fakhir” by his pun-loving American colleagues – almost unbearably poignant as this husband and father of eight risks his life every day to prevent the deaths of countless others. ■