The atmosphere of Jason Saltiel's debut feature is decidedly chilly despite the summer heat. With icy precision reminiscent of Claude Chabrol, Saltiel captures the social intricacies of affluent leisure. Frustrated college student Emma (Willa Fitzgerald) feels confined at her family's Amagansett summer home, only using the vacation to convince her wary parents to bankroll a year off in order to jump-start her stalled fiction output. When alluring photographer Paul (Murray Bartlett) arrives for an extended visit, Emma senses that her desire for life experience may be fulfilled sooner than expected.
By making Beach House so spare — four characters in one location — Saltiel heightens even the most mundane interactions. Paul and Emma's stepfather Henry (Thomas M. Hammond) discuss women while treading water, their conversation establishing the cocky interloper as an emotional Bluebeard and the meek homeowner as steadfast protector. Cinematographer Andreas von Scheele only shows their disembodied heads bobbing on the gently undulating Atlantic, and Saltiel's clever staging reveals the undercurrent of hostility in their friendly bantering.
Gracious hostess Catherine (Orlagh Cassidy) invited her downtown artist friend to impress the sullen Emma, who views her mother as a sellout, and their discussion about how "dangerous" Paul may be displays the former's willful naïveté and the latter's blossoming dread. With hints of an Australian accent heightening his seductive purr, Paul worms his way into Emma's imagination, triggering pleasure and fear, but breaking her cocoon of privilege has frightening consequences.
Saltiel, who co-wrote Beach House with producer Matt Simon, also edited the psychological thriller into a tight 86 minutes, and composed the synth-based score, which adds pulsing warmth to this cool dissection of febrile creativity.