An adventurer catches wind of a secret Thai island.
Directed by Danny Boyle
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tilda Swinton
Review by Jon Kissel
With a promise to return to the tragic mooring of The Beach to its era, this film is failing due to how it perceives DiCaprio’s Richard. It must be going for an anti-hero role due to the character’s actions, but because he’s played by arguably the most famous actor of the period, something’s off. DiCaprio had played characters like this at this point, i.e. The Basketball Diaries, another film where he imagines himself perpetrating a gun massacre, and he will again in his work with Scorsese, but Richard is a total misfire both in how he’s performed and in how other characters react to him. DiCaprio is not his charismatic self here, but is instead an overcompensating boor. If the film requires Richard to be inferior to his self-perception, that’s fine, but characters both call him out on his negative quirks and then treat him as if he was awesome. If a moron is flirting, badly, and his quarry tells him he’s failing but sleeps with him anyway, what is the lesson? The character relaying his shark anecdote is painful in its hacky emptiness, but everyone’s eating it up. Seeing Richard get what he wants and escape consequences makes him DiCaprio’s most unlikable character.
Not only does The Beach misjudge its lead, it misjudges the events of the film based on the ending. How dare this movie allow Richard to smile wistfully at his time on the island after he directly caused the deaths of four people and perhaps needlessly mercy-killed another. There is a thematic thread in the film about the blindness and entitlement of Western tourists to anything happening in Thailand beyond the scope of their own pleasure, and the final shots may be a further commentary of exactly that, but it’s also possible that the film couldn’t bear to make fresh-faced Leo into a rueful, ruined man like Robert Carlyle’s Daffy. The Beach toys with an acid-tongued accusatory tone when the islanders abandon their wounded compatriot in the woods like he was some smallpox-afflicted Dakota conman, but there’s minimal comeuppance for this inhumanity. Daffy is where Richard needed to end up, but instead he’s perfectly fine and safe in an office job, that particular hell of late-90’s cinema.
The era of its release both ensures that The Beach could only exist in its time period and instantly marks it as a disposable piece of pablum. Tyler Durden famously asked his deluded followers where their great trials that would make them men were, only for the great war to come a few years later with the great depression on its heels. Fight Club articulated the aimlessness of the ‘end of history’ 90’s while also ridiculing such self-centeredness as sadism and futile glory-seeking after a century whose atrocities and body count should make any survivors happy that the temperature on their lives is turned way down. The Beach is in an identical vein but with none of the satirical strength or kinetic filmmaking. It swaps out Fight Club’s violence for leisure, and keeps the surrealism and the monologuing sans the inventiveness of the former and the wit or profundity of the latter. By being so shallow and so bland and safe, especially in contrast to one of the most incendiary films of the last 30 years, The Beach is exactly as empty as its protagonist.
The Beach may have completely played me. Every ounce of applause Richard gets from the island’s inhabitants may be meant to be fruit from the poison tree and he’s too dumb to understand this. Boyle might hate everyone onscreen. Some might be charming, but the premise on which they’re currently living their lives is a hateful and selfish one, so their charm is worthless. This most charitable of readings requires Boyle to be a terrible director wholly incapable of communicating subtext, and that’s just not the case. Richard is continuously set up to be a figure of misguidedness instead of outright hostility and malevolence, and this decision dooms The Beach. Not even Tilda Swinton can pretty up this film. Knowing nothing about the plot of The Beach before pressing play, I had hoped for this to be an audacious fiasco that swung for the fences and alienated viewers with its ambition. Instead, it’s bad the way many bad movies are, in that it doesn’t understand how its characters are coming off to the point that they’re being actively rooted against. The Beach’s reputation is well-earned, and the map to its location should be promptly burned. D+