Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Beguiled (2017)

rating: ****

the story: A Union soldiers ends up resting in a house full of Southern belles.

what it's all about: The story began as a book (1966's A Painted Devil by Thomas Cullinan) and then a Clint Eastwood film in 1971.  Sofia Coppola turned it into her sixth feature film in 2017.  It seems befitting for the director of The Virgin Suicides.  And also the star of Miss Julie, Colin Farrell.

Critics seem to have dismissed it as a mostly unnecessary duplication of Eastwood's film.  This is odd, as Eastwood's film really has no lasting cultural legacy.  You can tell when critics can't come up with a better way to dismiss a movie when they start referencing stuff they probably had to research in order to talk about, or otherwise material the general public has never heard of. 

At any rate, I think, as a movie layman, that The Beguiled works quite well, especially in relation to Coppola and Farrell's back catalog.  Coppola's first movie, The Virgin Suicides, was about a brood of sisters who, ah, beguile the neighborhood boys who can't understand what happens to them.  Farrell and Jessica Chastain matched wits in Liv Ullmann's Miss Julie, a 2014 adaptation of the August Strindberg play; it's Chastain who dominates Farrell in that one, although there ends up being a fair amount of blame to go around in how it ends.

Likewise, Farrell is both criminal and victim in The Beguiled.  His Union soldier can't help but exude charm amongst the women he becomes surrounded by, and he leads basically all of them on.  But this ends up backfiring on him when he chooses one of them and by default betrays the rest of them, which leads to...ah, well, nothing good. 

The women are led by a few heavy hitters: Nicole Kidman, Elle Fanning, and Coppola veteran (she appeared in Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette) Kirsten Dunst.  Between Kidman's and Dunst's characters, Farrell has the most trouble.  He arrives at their doorstep with an injured leg, and reinjures it when Dunst sends him tumbling down a stairway.  Kidman makes the decision to amputate it, believing she has no other choice.  Farrell interprets it as a spiteful gesture. 

In Miss Julie, it's Chastain who becomes totally unhinged; in Beguiled it's Farrell (I kind of wish it had been Chastain, rather than Kidman, who played the matriarch, for that reason alone).  It occasions his best scenes in the movie, anyway.  Kidman channels her Cold Mountain performance; Dunst is again her classic shrinking violet, a role that thrust her to prominence early in the millennium (the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, where she portrayed Mary Jane Watson), and as in her previous Coppola collaborations, she again finds new ways to present it.

The story itself must be considered fascinating.  Even if you fault Farrell for his fate, you can't say it's justified.  In some ways it seems a rebuke from Coppola for the exaggerated emotions running rampant today.  And it can't be a mistake that it's a Civil War drama, in an age where the United States seems to be teetering on schism once again. 

It's a contemplative drama well worth relishing, and a sobering reflection on the battles of the sexes.