|Scene from The Beguiled|
In theory, The Beguiled is a war movie. For starters, it takes place during the Civil War and features a Union soldier injuring himself on Confederate soil. What follows is a moment of hospitality wrapped up in a tense psychological war. Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is being cured by a secluded school for women, all of whom have varying reactions to his presence. While it's a simple story on its surface, it's a far more complex story underneath the surface. It isn't just the story of two sides hating each other, but also the struggles between men and women, as well as a deeper personal attraction. Director Sofia Coppola turns in one of her best directed movies by making every character into predators, waiting to pounce. The only question becomes who will attack first, and for what cause. It may be a Civil War movie, but the war at hand is anything but civil.
In a world populated by male dominated movies, there's something eerie about McBurney being the only main character who isn't a woman. Much like how he fights for a different army, he doesn't understand the ways of the people who help him. They protect him, but he cannot determine the correct way to please them. Even the simple mistake of saying "It would be a pleasure" when offered a drink for recovery is reprimanded as a sinful behavior. This is a world as restricted in their views as his. The audience knows little about him other than that he doesn't belong, and he's judged far worse than he likely is. Still, he is an alluring figure, drawing many into his masculine gaze hidden under a false sense of politeness. His leg may be broken, but at least he shows gratitude to those who house him without seen judgment.
The issues soon become literal culture clash. Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) tries to run a pristine house full of prayer, education, and music. While never expressed, it's clear that it's meant to keep the mind off of sexual behaviors. For Edwina (Kisten Dunst) and Alicia (Elle Fanning), the allure of McBurney is in part because of his politeness, but also generally being an attractive man. Their concern goes beyond whether he's a Union soldier that will murder Confederates without notice. They just want their lustful desires to be fulfilled. When he becomes aggressive, the story becomes tense and the horrors become harder to differentiate. Should McBurney be despised because he is an enemy soldier, a man, or a sinner? Each theme gets its chance to play out, slowly building to a gripping third act where the demise may be simple, but the crescendo of themes add poignancy to the execution.
More than any other film, The Beguiled is Coppola's horror film. It isn't one full of literal demons, but those of a psychological variety. She spends the first half of the movie slowly introducing the characters, letting the audience interpret any and all tension. Her camera lingers like a pulse that is slowly racing faster, forcing sides to fight a breathtaking battle that doesn't involve uniforms. It involves ideals that show how disgusting humanity could be to each other, even in the face of good will. Coppola chooses not to judge, instead allowing each character to make their point. It makes things more unnerving, especially with a high caliber cast that more than proves that great women's roles are far from extinct. In fact, they probably could've put more in here and still not been enough.
Kidman is excellent as the reserved leader who meticulously chooses every move. She controls everyone's desires, believing that chastity is the way to live. She is an example to characters who have their own demons, and whose struggles come through in perfectly repressed performances. Dunst's insecurity shines through her eyes as her physical timidity gives off vibes that make her relationship with Farrell all the more unnerving. She is an innocent women who, as taught by Miss Martha, desires to see the good in everyone. When the deceit happens, her emotional struggle shines through in one of her best performances since Melancholia. Likewise, Fanning's young innocence makes her performance more impressive when faced alongside the masculine intimidation of Farrell. He towers over her, creating a conflicting sense of obeying elders. Her story is just as perverse as everyone else's, likely more-so given the path that her journey goes. Farrell holds his own in an Oscar-worthy performance that builds while showing the flawed traits of a man in a terrible situation. He may be first seen as the aggressor, but the mystery around who really was "the beguiled" becomes more conflicting in the third act in large part thanks to him.
The Beguiled is a drama about the struggles to be nice to each other. There's a lot of things that could go wrong, and Coppola manages to feature all of them often within the same frame. It's a towering achievement for her as a director, as she manages to unravel her story in a slow manner that builds intensity. This is also one of her strongest casts, which allows the film to get by on the quiet moments where nothing and everything happens simultaneously. This is a film that challenges appearances, and the answer on who was right isn't always clear. With excellent cinematography and costume design, it's a film that sets itself up as a typical female revenge story, but goes on to be about so much more. It's a Civil War drama that doesn't need to show a uniform. All it really needs to show is the men underneath, struggling to find identity and integrity in the face of difficult situations.