Lead performance sells genre-defying thriller

Love can bring out the best in us. It can also bring out other things.

The British thriller “Beast” is a genre-bender that travels into unexpected territory. At its core is a love story. There's commentary on the British middle class.

Oh, and a possible serial killer.

“Beast” is often bleak, sometimes beautiful and occasionally baffling. And while your expectations, or lack thereof, will ultimately decide how fulfilling you'll find the film, it's worth it just for the lead performance.

Moll (Jessie Buckley) is a 27-year-old woman living in a small island community. She works as a bus tour guide and lives at home under a judgmental mother and the shadow of an older sister.

When circumstances at her birthday party with family trigger her to get away, Moll goes out drinking at a local club. The evening turns to morning with a one-night-stand who begins to get sexually aggressive with Moll, only to be stopped when a handsome stranger named Pascal (Johnny Flynn) steps in.

With his protective introduction, good looks and the initial warm feelings he displays towards her, Pascal inspires the typically meek Moll to come out of her shell and from under the overbearing influence of her family.

But this blossoming romance is sidetracked by the revelation that Pascal may be a suspect in a string of murders. We've all been there, right?

“Beast” writer-director Michael Pearce makes a strong debut with a film that's chilling in places and warm in others. My interest was piqued with a great trailer, but I'm more impressed with the ways the film played against my expectations.

Pearce also plays with pacing, which means that this movie takes its time in places, giving its moments of violent punctuation more heft. It avoids the exploitative aspects that a “young, potential serial killer in love” plot implies.

And while some in the audience may in fact want that, “Beast” probes at some deeper questions about our nature.

Much of the success of “Beast” lies in the two dynamic lead actors. Flynn's charm and underlying dark side sells a romance that develops a bit too quickly. There's a pain in his eyes.

But the movie belongs to the indelible performance of Buckley. She takes us on Moll's journey with a wide-ranging performance that's as gripping in the quiet moments as the loud ones. She makes “Beast” this weekend's top pick.