With only a handful of characters and a limited location, “The Beguiled” is a chamber piece; it’s “Die Hard” without the action. In an all but abandoned girl’s school in the South while the Civil War rages nearby (we never see the war head on, but the sound of cannon fire and smoke on the horizon are a constant reminder of the carnage just outside the grounds), Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) preside over the few children still left in their care. Tired and lonely (read: horny), their solitude is enlivened by the arrival of an injured (not to mention handsome) Union soldier (Colin Farrell). As he recovers from his wounds, he begins playing with their emotions. Tensions rise and erupt.
“The Beguiled” is the kind of movie that requires presence of mind. It’s dripping with atmosphere. With its foggy swamps and golden hour lighting, you might be tempted to just let the movie wash over you. But that really wouldn’t leave you with much. The atmosphere is nice, but it’s the interactions between the characters that are most important. It’s a movie of looks. The side glances, the eye contact, the glares (both noticed and un-) are what’s important. They’re subtle, and you have to pay attention to them in order to penetrate the material, to get something out of the film.
This subtlety encompasses the acting as well. Kirsten Dunst especially does a great job of letting her feelings (mostly misery) ooze out, using just her expressions and, of all things, her breathing. Listen to how she tries to control it, poorly, upon being with Farrell alone for the first time. We’re never privy to why she’s so miserable, but it’s not hard to get inside her head. Between the isolation and having nothing but pre-teen and teenage girls as company, she has the shell-shocked look of a parent who only has children to talk to, and she makes her feelings evident. You can almost taste them.
We don’t learn too much about any of the characters. They aren’t especially deep. Everybody tends to have one or two traits and no more. Kirsten Dunst is miserable, Nicole Kidman repressed (but better at handling it), and Elle Fanning, the oldest student, is a sullen teenager. But this is a movie that’s more interested in psychology. It’s a “what would happen if” movie. What would happen if a handsome, and possibly dangerous, stranger was dropped into a group of isolated and lonely women? What would happen? Same thing that would happen if the genders were reversed (emotionally, at least). It’s like lighting the fuse of a powder keg. The beauty of the movie is how it presents these types and then has them bounce off, within, and top of each other, watching that fuse burn lower and lower until…boom.
But Sophia Coppola’s direction is reserved, which suits the movie well; there’s more than enough emotion smoldering in front of the camera. She doesn’t pass judgment, either. She doesn’t take sides. Colin Farrell isn’t necessarily a villain, though he is a prick. He likes the attention. And he tries to parlay that into a better life…or just a life, in this case. Makes sense, but still, he’s messing with people’s emotions (and thinking with his nether-regions).
And the actions in the latter half aren’t as clear cut (literally, in this case) as they seem to be. Nicole Kidman makes a fateful decision that ushers in the third act, and it’s certainly reasonable, but there is a nagging sense that while it was logical, yes, it may have been encumbered by passion. I liked that none of this is spelled out by Coppola; it’s for us to think about, and I enjoyed considering these things long after leaving the theater.
And it wasn’t until the last scene that I noticed just how funny the movie was. Something as innocuous as sewing lessons throughout the film, for example, turn out to be a setup for a deliciously dark joke right at the end. And then there is a dinner sequence that has the women participating in a game of one-upmanship over apple pies (“I made the pie.” vs. “It was my recipe!” vs. “I picked the apples!!”) in order to impress a bemused Farrell.
Funny as that moment was, my resulting laughter wasn’t aimed at the characters. My reaction stemmed from an unsettling sense of recognition. I would probably (probably? Surely!) act this way too and (oh, so recently) have, in trying to get the attention of the opposite sex. That’s what’s lovely about “The Beguiled.” It could have been a campy exercise mocking the idea of “hysterical women” and “macho men.” And while there is camp hidden deep within the film, Coppola focuses instead on the human element, imbuing the film with a sense of humanity and thus a recognition of ourselves. It’s a reminder that we’re all emotional beings, just longing for a connection. And if you screw with that, you’ll definitely get screwed.