Here’s a lesson for any and all aspiring film bloggers:
Even if you’ve seen the movie before, always rewatch a film before you write about it. This is especially true if it’s been a while since you last saw the film. Often the pressure to say whether a film was bad or good can lead to your memory playing tricks on you.
That was certainly the case with me and the 2000 film, The Beach. For the longest time, I remembered The Beach as being a gorgeously shot but rather shallow film, one that featured one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s least impressive performances. Whenever I had to explain my theory that DiCaprio didn’t become a consistently good actor until 2003, The Beach was inevitably one of the film’s that I would cite as proof that, early on in his career, DiCaprio had a tendency to overact.
In short, if I hadn’t rewatched the film on Saturday morning, you would currently be reading a really negative review of The Beach. However, I did rewatch The Beach and I discovered that both the film and DiCaprio’s performance were a lot better than I initially remembered. Now, don’t get me wrong. The Beach is still a frustratingly uneven film and the voice over narration (which DiCaprio recites in a rather overwrought style) still makes me cringe. But still, it’s hardly the disaster that I initially remembered it being.
DiCaprio plays Richard, a privileged American who finds himself in Bangkok, searching for adventure. When he meets the appropriately named Daffy (Robert Carlyle), a bemused Richard listens as Daffy talks about an uncharted island in the Gulf of Thailand. Daffy swears that it’s a paradise that is populated by other travelers. When Richard smirks and asks Daffy if he’s “fucked in the head,” Daffy responds by drawing Richard a map and then promptly committing suicide. Richard and his two French friends, Françoise (Virginie Leydon) and Étienne (Guillaume Canet), go searching for the island.
And they find it! It turns out that Daffy knew what he was talking about. On the island, they discover a small but thriving commune. Soon, Richard is killing sharks, having affairs, and becoming close to the leader of the commune, Sal (Tilda Swinton). Unfortunately, Richard is also starting to lose his mind. He grows to love paradise so much that he chooses ignore the dangers all around. When a member of the commune is attacked by a shark, he’s left out in the middle of the jungle because no one wants to deal with the reality of his suffering. Even more dangerous are the neighboring marijuana farmers, who allow Sal and her followers to live only under the condition that they keep the island a secret. The problem is that Richard’s not good at keeping secrets. Before he even knew if the island was real, Richard showed the map to a group of American surfers. And now, the surfers are coming….
The Beach was directed by Danny Boyle, so it’s not a surprise that the film looks great and that it has an absolutely brilliant soundtrack. (The film makes great use of both Moby’s Porcelain and Out of Control by the Chemical Brothers.) At the same time, Boyle is too much of a subversive to fully buy into his film’s vision of paradise. From the minute that Richard and his friends reach the island, Boyle is offering up hints that utopia isn’t as wonderful as people assume. When Sal asks for a volunteer to accompany her to the mainland on a supply run, Boyle practically delights in showing everyone freaking out at the idea of having to indulge in responsibility. Boyle often contrasts Richard’s pretentious narration (which, at times, sounds like it could have been lifted from a Beto O’Rourke medium post) with the rather mundane details of living on the island. Though it may not be obvious from the start, The Beach works best when viewed as being a satire of middle and upper class ennui.
As for DiCaprio’s performance as Richard ….. well, let’s just say that he spends a lot of time yelling. During the early part of his career — essentially the pre-Scorsese years — DiCaprio had a tendency to overact. For all of his obvious talent, it took DiCaprio a while to really get to a point where he seemed as comfortable underplaying as he was just going totally overboard. The Beach has its moments where DiCaprio gets awkwardly shrill. (The scene where Richard talks about killing a shark always makes me cringe.) But, at the same time, DiCaprio’s performance gets better as the film progresses. (The scenes where DiCaprio is running around the jungle and trying to act like an animal are actually quite good.) If DiCaprio’s performance sometimes seems shallow or histrionic, that’s because that’s who Richard is meant to be as a character. (In one scene, Françoise even calls Richard out for being shallow and pretentious.) Just because Richard’s narrating and is played by the star of the film, that doesn’t meant that we’re necessarily meant to like him.
These are all things that I didn’t really understand until I rewatched the film. Maybe I was too immature the first time I saw the movie to understand what Boyle was really going for. Maybe I was just having an off night the first time that I watched The Beach. Or maybe my memory was just faulty. For whatever reason, I’m glad that I rewatched this often uneven but still rather interesting film. For all of its flaws. it was definitely better than I remembered.