Beach House

The Beach House (2019)

The Beach House first published by

“The thing we liked about coming here is it was so comfortable. The same weather, the same rooms, the same furniture. They’re frozen in time. Jane loved it so much. We hadn’t been here so long, I just – I wanted her to have one last special time. She could be so happy on the beach. But then you see someone change in front of you, and you know it won’t get any better, there’s no going back.”

The speaker is Mitch (Jake Weber), a retired teacher who has come with his terminally ill wife Jane (Maryann Nagel) for an off-season break at his friend’s beach house. The problem is that the owner’s twenty-something son Randall (Noah Le Gros) has come unannounced to the beach house at the same time with his girlfriend Emily (Liana Liberato) – and so as the younger couple tries to work out their future, whether together or apart, and the older couple contemplates approaching mortality, these four agree to cohabit in the same space, and to form an agreeable ecosystem between them.

Addressing his words to Emily while both sit on the beach looking out to the ocean beyond, Mitch is also, in a way, describing the dynamic of any shoreline. It is a place where the mutable fluidity of the water’s waves keeps buffeting the land, ever so gradually eroding away its apparent solidity and stability. The shore, like Mitch’s description of the beach house on it, may seem frozen in time, but there is always change and death coming – and these are irreversible. And so the beach is the perfect setting for the pondering of eternity and metamorphosis – two themes which, in different ways, are encoded in Mitch and Jane’s surname, Turner.

There must be something in the water. The Beach House opens with shots of the ocean’s shimmering sun-dappled surface, and then plunges beneath to the sea bottom, where a massive chimney spews forth billowing clouds of rising matter. This allies writer/director Jeffrey A. Brown’s feature debut to a run of recent genre films – Jon Turteltaub’s The Meg (2018), Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever (2019). William Eubank’s Underwater (2020) – in which something primordial and alien emerges from the depths to threaten humanity. As it happens, Emily is finishing a degree in organic chemistry, and hopes to study astrobiology in grad school, where she will specialise in extreme forms of life that subsist on the ocean floor. “Life is so fragile,” she says, as the four eat, drink and ingest marijuana together – and they are all about to find out how right she is. For something that has stirred in the nearby ocean is emerging onto the shoreline and into the air, so that a weird fog quickly spreads across the coast, and both the water and the nearby flora shine with an eerie bioluminescence. “It’s in the trees,” says a stoned Mitch, unconsciously quoting a line from Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957)  – although here the threat is less supernatural than chemical/biological, as though Richard Stanley’s Color Out Of Space (2019) were reconfigured as a nature’s revenge film, or Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) were relocated to a private beach on the American coast.

  “What’s the point of an education, just to get a job?” asks Randall, when questioned about his decision to drop out of university. “I mean there has to be something else, right? What’s underneath all of this? Marriage, kids, taxes, bills, watching television, elections, sports on Sunday… No offence, I just don’t know and I’m figuring it out. For me.” Randall’s personal quest comes with a decidedly existential trajectory – and although Randall himself is presented as a rather self-involved character who is dismissive of his much smarter girlfriend’s views, the critical  questions that he raises about the conventional mainstays of American life are brought into sharp relief by rapidly moving developments at the waterline which are about to bring life (as we know it) to an end, or at least into catastrophic transition. For in this film the fragility and futility of our ephemeral endeavours are exposed by events which place this four-way human drama in a grander evolutionary framework. This is home invasion on a planetary scale.

Once it becomes clear that Randall and Emily are not the only uninvited guests at the beach house, the body horror kicks in and everything settles into panicky siege and survival modes – but Brown lets his Lovecraftian apocalypse wash up just slowly enough not to overwhelm too soon, while his attention to the microcosm formed by a small group of people only adds to the rising sense of dread and desperation on a much larger scale. There is also a peculiar beauty and awe here, as we witness humanity, to quote Shakespeare from his similarly littoral The Tempest, “suffer a sea change/into something rich and strange.” Emily finally has her unique, harrowing opportunity to realise her academic interests, to experience a close encounter with extreme organisms, and to take a dip in the infinite.

Summary: In first-time writer/director Jeffrey A. Brown’s assured cosmic horror, two vacationing couples in crisis must face an overwhelming, evolutionary sea change.

Anton Bitel