This film was panned upon its original release, I think, in part, due to the nasty reputation Leonardo DiCaprio unintentionally built for himself after the derision poured upon Titanic in general, as schmaltz, and especially on him by jealous men, and those who didn’t understand the reason for the tween obsession with him.
I admit that I, too, didn’t really get him myself, I found Titanic enjoyable enough, but never felt the need to see it again. I’ve considered it once in a while, but never very strongly. DiCaprio made no impression on me whatsoever. However, I eventually saw What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and my crowd-following dismissal of DiCaprio rapidly evaporated, and films like Gangs of New York simply added to my positive impression. But, between those two, a teacher of mine showed The Beach to her classes. I forget why, probably something about communes, but she had us watch The Matrix–yes, the entire film–in this same social studies class as explanation of Cartesian Duality. Uh…huh. Naturally my brain decided whatever slim analogy she had for this one was probably no better, and, in her defense, I’m not sure how well she understood these concepts either.
But, I digress–as always. I had a positive impression of the film, going into it knowing it was roundly panned, but keeping an open mind, since I was seeing it for free on school time. When it finished, I remember thinking I wasn’t sure why it was panned, and, as with many things, it was brought back to my mind as I re-shelved Alex Garland’s book at work a few hundred times, or at least saw it there sitting on the shelf. So, when it came around at a bargain price, I snapped it up without much thought and it joined my insanely large pile of “to watch or re-watch” DVDs.
Since I’m writing this, I obviously have gotten around to a re-watch.
My impression has not really wavered, though I had a slightly more critical eye toward DiCaprio, after seeing even more impressive performances from him (such as his turn as Howard Hughes), and was not completely impressed with him early in the film. He suffers the condition that so many accuse Pacino of, though I don’t feel he has the signs of control Pacino shows, even when flipping the switch from docile to raving, frothing junkyard dog. When he explodes at people a few times early on, it feels a bit forced and unnatural, though, to his credit, he manages to securely maintain the emotion itself, failing only at the transition. The anger and intensity themselves are quite believable and acceptable to the human ear and eye. Of course, he is the focus of the film and goes through quite a lot–he begins as a curious traveller, trying to find something else in the world, something that gives meaning to a life he’s not entirely happy with. He craves adventure and experience, and so he falls for a baiting on the street to drink snake’s blood–and then, when a crazed neighbor in his hotel begins to babble about a hidden island paradise, he takes the map he finds on his door and impulsively invites his other neighbor–an attractive woman, and her boyfriend. They make their way to the island, only to find a great surprise on the open side of it; something rather unlike paradise is what they first find. At a glance, the land is bountiful and a source of amusement–acres and acres of marijuana–but they quickly learn this is not paradise, and is something else entirely. Narrowly they escape this and find the true island farther along, miles inland and far more secretive.
The community they find there is totalitarian, under the rule of Sal (Tilda Swinton) who seems to be the same role Tilda often gets, in my (admittedly limited) experience–cold, emotionless, “by whatever means necessary” ice queen. She keeps a tight grip on the secret of the island, but is not entirely unfair or closed to new possibilities. Beyond her rule, it is the paradise they sought; everyone is friendly, amicable and does their part, they have anything they could want and do whatever they feel like. But, the results of an impulsive move by Richard prior to arrival on the island endanger everything they hold dear.
Here is where I take issue, not with the film–which plays out perfectly for this plot, and the plot works–but with the characters inside it. Richard (DiCaprio) has, on a whim, invited someone else to the island when he is feeling like a third wheel to Françoise and Étienne, the couple he invites with him. He learns only after arriving that this was a bad idea, but Sal nearly crucifies him for it, as if he should have known in advance. Now, Richard screws up an awful lot–he lies constantly to protect himself, thereby showing the futility of a lie as great as that–but it’s not exactly his fault he didn’t know, and Sal even says it’s not the lies that bother her. So, what is then? That he broke a rule he couldn’t possibly have been aware of? That’s his fault? Now, as I say, he lies. He’s not a perfect person by any stretch, and other actions are not nearly defensible, but this one annoyed me, in Sal’s character though, not in the film. It fits for her characters quite well indeed.
I must add that seeing the effects of solitude that Sal induces on Richard for his actions are interesting, and show, again, the skill DiCaprio actually possesses, the near-madness that comes over him is easily believed and well-performed. We also see what he first uses of his own mind while attempting to deal with this solitude at first–he imagines himself in a video game (it’s established earlier that this is, in fact, a hobby of his) and we see the imagery as Richard sees it in his head–which leads me (thanks! I know! some kind of transition! I tried very hard) to Boyle’s direction. Boyle is known most famously for Trainspotting, which was quite a good movie that I should also get around to re-watching, and in genre communities for 28 Days Later. It mystifies me why I can say “Danny Boyle,” and, while it doesn’t surprise me that people say, “Who?” that I can say only Trainspotting to jog their memories. Why are genre films so ignored? Alas! But, to the point. Boyle has definitely got a style, and thoroughly enjoys exploring surreal moments and tricks that one can incorporate somewhat more successfully into the film medium than writing; I can’t imagine successfully reading Richard’s little internal trip to a video game, but seeing it shows the absurdity of this solution he finds for himself, by simply dropping us into it without requiring any sort of lead-in or explanation. He also likes to play with colour and images, blending and swirling things in various camera tricks to achieve his ends. It can be overdone, but Boyle always establishes this style early on, and it ends up thoroughly successful, no doubt also thanks to his excellent use of music. I sat up quite straight when I heard Godspeed You! Black Emperor in the middle of 28 Days Later, and here Leftfield and various electronic and trip-hop artists fit perfectly with the mood, tone, age, and experience of the characters, and even more perfectly with the imagery of the film.
Solidly put together all around, I still maintain this film was indeed unfairly maligned.