starring Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Maryann Nagel, Jake Weber
written and directed by Jeffrey A. Brown
by Walter Chaw What's the conversation to be had around William Eubanks's Underwater, Neasa Hardiman's Sea Fever, and now Jeffrey A. Brown's The Beach House? How all three, released within six months of each other, foreground a young, capable, female protagonist who understands better--and sooner--than anyone else the nature and intent of an all-consuming calamity. How all three are set in and around the ocean, that archetype of the unconscious for poets and philosophers. And how all three end with what is essentially a return--is it a reunion?--for their unheeded, uncelebrated triumvirate of seers. Indeed, they seem more like heralds than criers. The timing of the films is curious, certainly, and although H.P. Lovecraft seems the denominator for all three, in truth the better archetypal thread to pull here is the vagina dentata: the Charybdis, to be avoided for her indiscriminate thirst. They are fables of a very particular apocalypse, where a masculine impulse towards colonization, exploration, and industrialization has led to the Earth pushing back in pursuit of some sort of equilibrium. In that context, of course, it's a woman, particularly a young woman, who would recognize both the affront of a full-frontal violation and the retributive rearguard solution. These movies are violent in the way childbirth is contextualized as violent. Lots of shit goes down inside a chrysalis, too.
In The Beach House, college student Emily (Liana Liberato) and her lunk of a boyfriend, Randall (Noah Le Gros), retreat to his family's summer home to try to save their fast-sinking relationship. She's earnest and thoughtful; he's not. The first half of The Beach House does its best to set up their dynamic and what backstory it deems necessary, but I had a hard time feeling much empathy for Randall and, by extension, for Emily's attraction to him. She says later, gazing mournfully at a cigarette, that even though she's going to college, she still does "stupid shit." She means Randall. Emily looking at her cigarette while saying it suggests to me that director Brown has seen a few noirs. The two are surprised to find an older couple, Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel), already taking up residence in the house--the discovery a lovely bit of business involving Emily's dawning horror at the evidence of occupancy as she walks through the kitchen in just a blouse and panties. Liberato has a lovely, every-woman quality about her. She is every bit the ambitious college sophomore, complete with obscure dreams and complicated commencement plans. I like it when she says she's going to get her diving certificate so she can get into some program to do something wonderful. The best version of The Beach House is an exploration of how these dreams of youth get swallowed whole by the grey beast, "making a living."
Lingering close-ups of the anatomy of an oyster (and a prologue of an underwater steam vent billowing plumes of...something) lead to the moment where Randall eats one but Emily refuses. I wrestled with whether The Beach House "means" what it means (to the extent that it matters) to realize that it's maybe impossible to make a film about the ocean and what it holds without becoming pregnant with signs and symbols. There's some wisdom, in other words, merely in setting it there. Emily and Randall and Mitch and Jane have dinner together that first night at the beach house and, when they run out of wine, Randall offers some edibles to share. I think this is so some of the strange doings they witness that night can initially be explained away as side effects of a drug that does not generally cause hallucinations or colour trails. Emily says that the blue spores and strange growths erupting from the trees is the ocean recreating itself on the shore. This matches up to an AM radio broadcast later on (shades of Night of the Living Dead) where a woman's voice says something about an "extinction-level event." It's the women who grasp what they're up against.
In its second half, The Beach House becomes something like a zombie movie, something again like a Cronenberg body-horror flick, and a cautionary tale along the way concerning the perils of eating raw shellfish. There's probably a bit in here about over-medication and end-of-life decisions, but neither these nor the other possible subtexts are terribly well-developed. The best moment in the film happens right before it all goes completely wrong. Emily is sunbathing on the beach when Mitch shows up, sitting behind her. He says that he can't put his finger on it, but things just don't seem right. Unsettled, Emily puts a shirt on. There's something here, buried in this scene. The world is wrong. A popular joke is how we're all in Hell, we just don't know it. Except we do know it. Nothing is surreal, nothing is outrageous, every atrocity is common, and the increasingly brief moments where the clouds briefly part feel more cruel than hopeful. I wish there were more patience with this mood. The film really starts here at its midway point.
What works about The Beach House is what generally works about stories set in liminal spaces. It helps, of course, that it's appearing now, in the middle of a collective social metastasis, as a Rorschach test for a population undergoing traumatic, sweeping evolution. What do you see? What everyone sees: Cthulhu, the elder god devourer of worlds, rising from our deeps in the form of long-dormant viruses and fungi. It has occurred to me lately that all of these microorganisms, tentacled and beset with bulbous outgrowths, look like ancient illustrations of monsters. At the end of everything, Emily tells herself not to be afraid--a mantra she shares with the heroes of Underwater and Sea Fever. There's only one outcome to all the abomination. The rhetorical question posed in Mad Max: Fury Road is "who killed the world?" Rhetorical not just for the answer, but for the acceptance that the world is murdered. That's the past. I don't know that The Beach House is anything special by itself, but it's very good indeed as part of a eulogy for our time here. In a few years, when we're much closer to our end, this period of film will show exactly how much we knew before it was too late...and how little it mattered that we did. I think of the question Paul Schrader posed in First Reformed of whether God will forgive us for what we've done.