‘It seems the enemy is not what we believed.’
-Ms. Martha Farnsworth, The Beguiled
I can’t think of a guy who’s actually been in a serious relationship with a woman who still clings onto the juvenile, naive fantasy that being with more than one woman at a time could be anything but a terrible disaster. Leave those Casanova fantasies and playboy aspirations to doe-eyed dreamers and yearning youths. A man can tell you from experience, just one incredible woman can fill every one of your dreams, and it takes only one terrible one to possess your every nightmare. So what happens when a too charming for his own good, devilishly handsome Union gent finds himself under the care and supervision of a house full of Southern belles?
Well, if the modern remake of The Beguiled is any indication, first it’ll be a whole hell of a lot of mind numbing nothing. And then everything.
I never saw the original with Clint Eastwood back in the 70s, so I have nothing to say on the matter of its faithfulness to the original, or to the novel on which it was based. I am a blank slate, with no preconceived notions, letting you know what I thought of this standalone piece.
To be honest, I think very little of it. First, the strong points. I am beyond thrilled to see Colin Farrell in a film. I honestly find Colin Farrell irresistibly magnetic. Maybe I’m just another sucker for that Irish charm, but I do think Colin Farrell should have been excused much much sooner and forgiven by Hollywood for the mistakes of his past. I remember the tabloid stories and photos as he seemingly descended into a drunken, drug fueled, sex crazed rage. But I also remember how much fun the film In Bruges was because of him. I remember how kick ass he was in SWAT. I think Seven Psychopaths isn’t nearly as celebrated as it absolutely should and that’s a crime. I mean come on. You start to think back, Saving Mr Banks, Total Recall, Scrubs, Colin Farrell has been such a wonderfully charismatic and attractive pull. And it’s great to see Colin Farrell really be taken seriously in such a dramatic and intense role as the recovering Union Corporal McBurney. I hope that for whatever independent, art-house, cine-beauty attention The Beguiled received, some of it rubs off on Colin Farrell and I see him more often again, like when he was first hailed as ‘the next greatest actor in Hollywood’ in his youth.
In fact, every single performance in this slow crawl to inevitable nothingness deserves merit. Nicole Kidman is nothing short of expected perfection. She is calm, cool, calculating, and utterly reserved, as a proper Southern lady (I imagine) ought to be. Kirsten Dunst, another surprising nonentity considering her prolific repertoire, also brings a level of experience and expertise to the film. Not to be outdone, many of the younger actresses, led by the elegant and ethereal Elle Fanning, are also a great joy to watch on screen. I particularly enjoyed, and was surprised by, Addison Riecke (at only 13) for her humor and timing. If for nothing else, because you’d really be hard-pressed to find anything, The Beguiled shines as an exemplar for outstanding performances. There is real artistry and craft in every line delivered, every emotion expressed.
As such, my biggest criticism for The Beguiled is that though it is strong as performance, it’s honestly very terrible at being a film. Compared to my last rave review of Baby Driver which was almost specifically because Edgar Wright knows how to manipulate and take advantage of the unique characteristics of film, The Beguiled is just a static, dull, long drawn out smug self-satisfied expression. First off, cinematography is pretty much non-existent. The camera is almost always still, a passing thought, just a fly on the wall as action happens in front of, instead of with, the observer. Because of that, a lot of scenes seem very boring. You as the viewer are just not engaged. It’s slow and it’s inactive. The whole thing would have worked better on a live stage versus a movie screen. With the dialogue and the performance and the performers, all of this with that live energy of seeing the action just a few feet away from you, the audience feeding off of the energy of the performers and the performers feeding off of the attention of the audience, you would have felt more engaged and enjoyed more. Instead, as I feel with most of these art-house style films, there was just too much in the movie. So many establishing shots. B roll of Southern landscapes and old plantation mansions. Portrait shots of girls doing mundane tasks. It all felt so self-indulgent. So presumptuous. Cut out all of that ego-elements, restrict it to just the dialogue and performances, and you would have had an excellent stage production.
As I’m wrestling trying to figure out if the movie should have been a play I’m also trying to figure out what’s supposed to happen in the movie. At certain times I feel like I know what’s about to happen and I like it, I’m satisfied, I think it’s smart and would make for a great film. And then the whole plot takes another left turn. At first I think the sudden appearance of an ‘object to be won’ (a clever and smart reversal of gender roles, a statement on modern sexism) can unearth some unresolved issues and tensions among the women. Could be a great psychological movie. But then the girls get jealous and possessive of the attractive young man, somaybe we have a group Misery ordeal. Trapped in a mansion and not getting any better as the girls obsess over him. Then Farrell reveals his character to be a manipulative and chauvinistic playboy, and there’s a hostage situation. So potential for a cat and mouse piece. And then sometimes in strange spatterings, the movie bothers to have a love story. It’s like being haunted by a mystery fragrance. It’s like that shame and embarrassment when you get home and smell and think to compliment your partner’s home cooking, only to find out the kitchen’s been sprayed all day by exterminators. Let me tell you, your partner isn’t going to be flattered that industrial strength killer reminds you of their cooking, and you won’t be so reluctant to trust yourself from now on either. It’s all so jumbled up and misleading, it seems the movie is not what I believed!
Overall, strong performances aren’t nearly enough to save what is to me an entirely ego-driven self-indulgent art-house attention piece. It could have benefited from a liberal amount of editing, a boost in cinematography and film style, and a more clear direction. I’m glad that the actors, skilled as they are, knew where they were headed and how to get there, because I was lost the entire way.
Jerel says, ‘the enemy is not what we believed’.