In Danny Boyle’s The Beach, the geometrically expanding figure of Leonardo DiCaprio drifts through a high contrast, late-’90s Thailand in search of a platonic weed island. All of Bangkok’s industrial environments in the first half of the film move in and out of focus, as if melted by the humidity. DiCaprio walks through scenery that looks more like burst vessels than buildings.
Boyle applies skeletal British dance music to this physical and spiritual climate. DiCaprio is animated through Bangkok by the breakbeat rhythms of groups like Leftfield and Faithless, so both he and the music surrounding him seem to move in crisp, multi-limbed snaps. In this way the scenes in Bangkok are arranged with a kind of electrical sense; transitions are experienced almost like a twitch of muscle. DiCaprio is walking through a shopping district and then suddenly he is consuming a shot of snake blood. “Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience,” he narrates, and he spends most of the film in the manner of an absorbent id, a giant baby whose appetite for sensation is a black hole. He’s dumbstruck by a woman in the hallway of a guesthouse; Maxi Jazz sings, “Come around / watch a movie with the sound down / and get woozy.” Synths glow in evolving patterns.
DiCaprio’s neighbor in the guesthouse is the mentally fractured Daffy. He describes the weed island to DiCaprio in terms that confuse the mechanical and the sublime. “It was too beautiful, too much input, too much sensation,” he says. “I tried to keep it under control but it just kept spilling out and spilling out.” DiCaprio, Daffy, the music, the rhythms of Boyle’s shots: They’re all symbols of a greater sensory overload, two temporary residents in an overpowered city, organized into and exhausted by its dense human circuits.
The Beach was released in February 2000; the movie and soundtrack can now be read as a hangover of the late-’90s. DiCaprio’s character describes himself as a wan...