Practically every frame of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled is gorgeous. Beautiful lighting populates the woods and the old house that part of Beyoncé’s Lemonade was shot in, but it’s the women existing in this realm that should prove more interesting than the aesthetics of the film. The problem? They don’t.
As someone who avidly defends every Coppola work from The Virgin Suicides to The Bling Ring, it’s disappointing to see the filmmaker dive into a narrative ripe for further adaptation and not explore the themes that are clearly present. This tale of women, both young and old, who invite a wounded soldier into their home and care for him until things go awry is right in her wheelhouse. At its best, The Beguiled is playful and humorous in the way it goes about exploring how each woman (Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning especially) interacts with the male figure in the house as well as the other girls (Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke and Emma Howard).
Each woman has a unique personality, getting at least a moment or two to shine as individuals, but the film doesn’t quite dive into who they are or why they make the decisions they make like characters in Coppola’s other features do. The speculative male narration of The Virgin Suicides didn’t diminish how insightful the filmmaker’s gaze was into the lives of the Lisbon sisters, in great part because they had voices of their own. “We knew that they knew everything about us and that we couldn’t fathom them at all,” one of the boys says when discussing them. But we, the audience, still understand them and their decisions even though the film doesn’t spell anything out.
And where many would say that some of Coppola’s works include a lot of “nothing” happening—Somewhere being the prime candidate for this complaint—it’s their contemplative silences that make for the most insightful glimpses into the characters at their core. Their growth from point A to point B comes from solitude and sparse interaction with strangers who offer a shift in mental state. With The Beguiled, Colin Farrell’s Corporal McBurney should be this man, and there’s no denying that by the end of the feature, every woman is changed, for better or worse. But there’s no aftermath to the climax; the film just comes to a close.
An explanation as to why each woman makes the choices they make is unnecessary, but time to linger on those decisions and how it affects them is not. For the first time, a Sofia Coppola work needs more time to marinate; two hours instead of an hour and a half would have helped to build further the tension, claustrophobia, and the perils of desperate living that are hinted at. It’s not a plot-heavy feature by any means, but enough happens in it to warrant more moments of people dealing with what’s happening. Plot beats come and go quickly in between images of girls gathering, gore is dished out in controlled and effective bursts, and while the script delivers on some truly memorable moments (and a surprising amount of dialogue and glances that make for laugh-out-loud moments), it feels undercooked when it comes to truly exploring the characters of Thomas Cullinan’s original novel, a work that literally places you in the mind of each one.
This isn’t to say The Beguiled is bad. It’s certainly one of the most accessible works in Sofia Coppola’s oeuvre, annoying helped along by a marketing campaign that includes buzzy catch-phrases like “Vengeful Bitches” (a throwaway line in the film) on temporary tattoos and places “HBIC” (Head Bitch In Charge) on plastic wine goblets. Worst of these is the one that places focus on the idea of “Sisters Before Misters,” which is relatively reductive to how complex and somewhat self-interested these characters are. Yes, women do band together in order to deal with a male threat at a point in the film, but self-interest and desire fuel a number of decisions made throughout.
While it’s not explored to its fullest potential, the relationship between Dunst’s Edwina and McBurney is a prime example of what the narrative hints at but leaves hanging upon the beautiful concluding shot. There’s more to tell of her internal struggle, and it makes one wonder if The Beguiled suffers from the same issue that many a Marvel film does: too many characters, not enough time to explore how they’re impacted by their decisions. It falls flat and feels like a work anyone could have made. Coming from a filmmaker like Sofia Coppola—who has never shied away from making each work focused and unique to the point of isolating many a viewer—that’s reason enough to be disappointed in its wasted potential.
Directed by Sofia Coppola; written by Sofia Coppola; adapted from the novel by Thomas Cullinan and the screenplay by Albert Maltz & Irene Kamp; starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, and Emma Howard; 93 minutes.
The Beguiled is now playing in theaters everywhere.