the beguiled women

***1/2 (out of five)

Sofia Coppola’s new Beguiled, crediting both the 1966 novel and the 1971 screenplay as source material, is a surprisingly snappy and relentlessly atmospheric slice of “Southern Gothic”. Although Coppola and her cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd gleefully fetishise the Spanish moss, southern live oak trees and glamorously decaying architectural features of their gorgeous south Louisiana plantation locations, Coppola and her editor, Sarah Flack, refuse to dwell on them. The melodramatic, sultry story takes precedence over the pretty pictures, marking what some will claim as a maturing of Coppola’s style (I will), while some may miss the lugubriousness of The Virgin Suicides, which is her closest film, aesthetically and thematically, to this one.

Top-billed Colin Farrell plays a wounded Union soldier who is sheltered within a grand girl’s seminary in Virginia. The small group of women living there claim it is Christian values keeping them from immediately handing him over to the Confederate soldiers – their soldiers – who are omnipresent nearby and who routinely check in on the women at the seminary gates. In reality, it is sexual desire. Farrell’s entrance into the house sets each and every one of their hearts and other parts aflutter, and as they individually make plays for his affection, so too he, as clever as he is handsome, plays them off against each other. Of course, this is southern gothic, and you don’t need to be Tennessee Williams to know what kind of trouble all this furtive flirting may lead to.

TheBeguiled colin and kirsten

The film is completely apolitical. Coppola has said as much in multiple interviews, and also freely discussed shooting Farrell with an unapologetically objectifying gaze. He does look too gorgeous for the given circumstances – his haircut, for one thing, is too sharp for a soldier’s shears – but thankfully he doesn’t have the modern Hollywood Male Body, which would have made him ludicrous (that said, his body looks fantastic, just not condom-full-of-walnuts). The film is also not particularly interested in history and certainly not the details of the war (the Louisiana locations, with their hanging moss, even defy the vegetation of Virginia). Really, the film is set in an American south during an American Civil War; it is abstracted, fairy-tale.

The plot and motivations are melodramatic and overcooked, deliberately and enjoyably. Each of four generations of actresses gets to have enormous fun straining their desire against their tight corsets: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning and Australia’s own Angourie Rice, who remains uncannily brilliant in her mid-teens. If anything, I would have liked to see all of them allowed perhaps ten percent more scenery to chew; because the film is so fast (it’s all done and dusted in 93 minutes) their motivations seem to be a step behind their actual actions. I actually suspect that a lot more was shot, with the intention of letting the film breathe and luxuriate in the style of The Virgin Suicides, and then a radical decision was made to accelerate everything in the editing suite. If true, that choice may have made for a few jarring moments, but has resulted in Coppola’s leanest, meanest film, and one that is less an objet d’art than a guilty pleasure.

The Beguiled Clint
Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page in the 1971 version.

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American Sniper

**** (out of five)

Bradley Cooper gives an intricate, psychologically detailed performance as Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in US military history, in this cool, elegant biopic from Clint Eastwood, who was eighty-four when he directed it. Kyle was a slippery character. According to his autobiography, also called American Sniper, he was extremely proud of his lethal prowess, and of his “kill count”, which was officially pegged at 160 but which he claimed was 255. He was also fiercely single-minded in his perception of the Iraq War, which was his main playing field; he saw Iraqis as “animals” and “savages”, and there are those who see Kyle as, essentially, a racist serial killer who managed to get into the right profession at the right time.

The truth to someone like this is always complicated, but there is no doubt that Kyle suffered, to a degree perhaps less than many but to a degree nonetheless, some PTSD upon each of his Stateside returns (he did four tours). Like Jeremy Renner’s character in The Hurt Locker, with which American Sniper shares many similarities, Kyle was – and is shown as – someone who was pretty addicted to the thrill of battle. He was extremely good at his job, enjoyed being good at it (in his book he claimed to have “loved killing”) and lapped up the legendary status he held amongst his fellow soldiers. He was so good his unit gave him a symbol – that of the cartoon character “The Punisher” – and all adopted, stencilling it on their hardware, in an effort to frighten the opposition. It worked: Kyle had a huge bounty placed on his head by the enemy.

The film doesn’t present a racist serial killer, nor an arrogant psychopath, and it probably portrays Kyle as more humble than he was, but as a clinical examination of how a great soldier (and in particular a Navy SEAL) is made, what a sniper does, how the door-to-door searches that made up so much of the Iraq War worked, and of the intricacies of what may be thought of as relatively mild PTSD (but strong enough to be dangerous and debilitating), the film is winning on all counts. Like 2014’s Fury, it is more of a war film than an anti-war film; Kyle is our protagonist, we’re meant to like him, and he takes out Iraqis, and sometimes when he does, we’re kind of meant to cheer. Don’t forget that Eastwood is a deep Republican, and the film has that sensibility – and yet it’s neither insulting nor off-putting, and it’s not racist. It’s a serious story told with steely conviction, and if its politics are a little right of my comfort level, its obvious cinematic benefits are right in my wheelhouse.

Cooper is fantastic. His performance is totally precise. The gradations he and Eastwood have chosen to show – of Kyle’s character, personality and disease – are perfectly graded. We really get a sense of a full man, and if that isn’t exactly the man Chris Kyle was, it’s certainly an indelible movie character. Sienna Miller provides strong support as his wife Taya; beyond her, there are a bunch of dudes playing soldiers, who all do fine, if predictable, work. Which is probably how it is: amongst a lot of guys who are all a little alike, Chris Kyle obviously stood out.