Southern Gothic Horror Meets Empowerment In ‘The Beguiled’ (Movie Review)

Pitting Colin Farrell against a house full of women in a horror film is a something I was not expecting from director Sofia Coppola. Perhaps calling The Beguiled “horror” is a bit of an overstatement, but the Coppola film does a lot to maximize tension. For a movie that is quite straightforward and relatively restrained for the Oscar-winning director, some key moments play well to emphasize what a great production this is and how committed these performances are. All the better that Coppola’s writing is not beyond filtering humor within the rising levels of tension found throughout.

Set in the middle of the American Civil War, Farrell plays John McBurney, an injured Union soldier found outside the grounds of an all-girl boarding school in rural Mississippi. John is brought inside and cared for by the headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman). The presence of a man sparks the excitement of the other female occupants of this house; ages ranging from grade school to Kirsten Dunst’s Edwina Dabney, a teacher with more experience living a life among mixed company.

Martha knows this man’s presence will cause trouble, what with Elle Fanning’s Alicia constantly staring at the “blue belly” Union soldier, but is also about to report his presence to the Confederates. Matters are only made worse; once John finds himself enjoying the attention. It’s the decisions made from there that make The Beguiled something of a slow burn thriller, although hearing constant cannon blasts in the background should alert anyone of the danger approaching.

It should be clear that The Beguiled is not a remake of the Clint Eastwood/Don Siegel film from 1971. Instead, this is an adaptation of the same novel by Thomas P. Cullinan. Given the time and filmmaker sensibilities, it only makes perfect sense that the oddities and luridness of the previous film are toned down considerably. It’s honestly shocking to see the film even has an “R” rating (For what? double entendre?). Fortunately, this means the film places its minimalist focus on building these characters that occupy a single location. With further trims to material found in the novel (no female slave character to speak of), this is a 93-minute film that may be deliberate in pace but wastes no time.

Speaking again to the unexpectedness of Coppola making what could be seen as a high concept thriller, it makes a lot of thematic sense. Looking at her other films, including Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette and The Bling Ring, The Beguiled once again has her focused on characters trapped in some way, with a potential force of chaos upsetting the balance. Coppola’s Somewhere begins with several minutes of a character driving in circles, so seeing characters in this film conforming to what’s expected of young, Christian girls stuck in a boarding school during wartime seems to suggest how breaking out of mundanity can be useful no matter who you are.

That has paid off at times in Coppola’s films; sometimes to tragic degrees, such as The Virgin Suicides. Other times we have been witness to existential realizations to help one cope with life, such as Lost in Translation. In The Beguiled, the disruption amounts to empowering a group of women who eventually come together after seeing the dark side of a man given far too much encouragement for being a favored rescued victim.

It is a credit to Farrell that the film can capitalize off its strung out goal. Perhaps the only real similarity to the Eastwood film is casting someone like Farrell in his part. Eastwood once talked about how he doesn’t play “losers” in his films, conflicted and vulnerable characters, sure, but not losers. Farrell has played his share of losers (just look at The Lobster), but here’s a role that requires a guy that becomes far too confident and aware of his stature among those admiring him.

He is matched by Kidman and Dunst, who are both complicated in their own right. Credit also goes to Fanning, The Nice Guy’s Angourie Rice, Southpaw’s Oona Laurence, Emma Howard and Addison Riecke, but little is required of them by comparison. With Kidman, you have a character who holds everything in tight and speaks with a coldness that could only be betrayed by the first sight of a man not wielding a rifle and looking to plunder her home. She’s aware of how the world works and the battle of knowing consequences for this association vs. desire for newfound attention is there on the screen. At the same time, Dunst is a regular for Coppola at this point and finds all the right beats to play in being the character most certainly looking for an escape to her current life.

For all the time spent on the characters, The Beguiled has a great look at the house, gardens and forest surrounding everyone. Shot on film by Philippe Le Sound, whose stunning, Oscar-nominated work on Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster still needs to be seen by so much more people, this piece of Southern Gothic drama stands out as far as putting magic hour on display in such a classical way. It’s not hard to create a lived-in feel when the entire film is so steeped in atmosphere, from the indoor dinner scenes to shots of characters speaking while on a veranda.

As if the film didn’t already have enough going for it, one can also note just how twisted the humor becomes in the latter half of the movie. For various reasons, The Beguiled does become a film about suffering, but the delivery of particular lines and the way actions play out cannot stop a viewer from recognizing the fun Coppola wants to have with her audience. There may be stuffiness in the atmosphere, but the film is not going for some elitist period drama feel. It knows what it’s doing.

While The Bling Ring seemed to miss finding depth to its shallow characters, The Beguiled finds Coppola delivering on all sides. There’s no slack to be found, as the plot takes hold quickly and never lets up. The actors are all quite strong, further adding to the impact of the drama unfolding. At the same time, while not a schlocky thriller, there is darkly comedic fun to be had in watching this story unfold in an inevitable fashion. All of this and you even get a few pieces scored by Phoenix. The Beguiled grips.

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