In the trailer for The Beguiled, the one moment that really stood stood out for me is the one Focus Features’ marketing campaign has run with: Union soldier John McBurney (Colin Farrell) screaming “what have you done to me, you vengeful bitches?” at the inhabitants of the Confederate girls’ boarding school at which he convalesces following a battlefield injury. We don’t know the specifics—unless we watched the 1971 Beguiled or read the book on which it was based—but the moment itself is pretty damn intriguing. What did these “vengeful bitches,” led by headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), do to McBurney? Why did they do it? Could I ever assemble a girl gang so hardcore that a man would scream “what have you done to me, you vengeful bitches?” at us? Will Nicole Kidman be my best friend?
It’s the answers to those questions—the first two, anyway—that makes The Beguiled so fucking amazing. Unfortunately, the answers are also a bit spoilery, though I’m going to go vague regarding specific plot elements. First off, the non-spoilery bits: The Beguiled is wonderful. You should see it. It’s surprisingly funny in a dry sort of way. Nicole Kidman is goddamned amazing and Colin Farrell is goddamned amazing and Colin Farrell’s chest hair is goddamned amazing and Kirsten Dunst is goddamned amazing and Elle Fanning is goddamned amazing and, honestly, it’s one of the most beautifully shot films I’ve seen in recent years. There are visuals in this movie that took my breath away. I came out of The Beguiled wanting to bury myself in a vat of perfectly lit Spanish moss.
OK. Now we enter (vague) spoiler territory. Again, I’m going to go general with it, but if you’re a dyed-in-the-wood spoilerphobe you can just skip down to the comments now and post Colin Farrell gifs, please and thank you.
Put simply, the basic plot of The Beguiled is that a wounded soldier winds up in this all-girl’s boarding school, where the inhabitants are cut off from the outside world due to the ongoing Civil War. They’re bored and scared and haven’t had contact with men in a while, and one of them in particular (sullen teenager Alicia, played by Fanning) is dealing with those good ol’ raging puberty hormones. Alicia, dowdy teacher Edwina (Dunst) and strict headmistress Martha (Kidman) all want to jump on McBurney’s dick, to varying degrees. Because… well, wouldn’t you?
Meanwhile, the younger girls—sweet Amy (Oona Laurence of Pete’s Dragon), prickly Jane (Angourie Rice of The Nice Guys), and burgeoning sociopath
o’ my heart Marie (Addison Riecke)—compete for McBurney’s attention. He steps into this stifling, static atmosphere and turns everything on its head, stirring up rivalries and discontentments. Eventually, all that drama simmering beneath the surface comes to a head, and… well, you saw Nicole Kidman saying “get the saw” in the trailer, right? Something bad happens involving McBurney, prompting his “vengeful bitches” wail.
But here is what I love.
The bitches? Not vengeful. Not even bitches. Coppola, who also wrote the screenplay, takes the “catty, jealous, crazy woman who lashes out when a man doesn’t pay attention to her” trope and turns it on its head. The women in this movie don’t do anything wrong.
McBurney says they do. He thinks they do. After what happens to him happens to him, he lashes out, claiming that the women intentionally hurt him (they didn’t) and getting physically violent. He tries to gaslight them, essentially, trying to convince them their completely rational actions were malicious in nature. Up to this point, McBurney’s been a sweet-talker, seducing the women in various ways in order to get what he wants. He’s manipulative. He’s a user. And he’s just so damn charming that he gets away with it. Until he doesn’t and, quite by accident, his ladykiller ways come back to bite him in the ass. And he loses it. He gives up an ounce of male privilege—his masculinity takes a hit—women don’t behave the way he wants them to and give him everything he thinks he’s owed—and it’s the women’s fault. For standing up for themselves. For doing what needed to be done. And the women rally, putting aside their differences to GET SHIT DONE and HANDLE (Major spoilers: using “women’s arts,” like sewing [up a bodybag] and cooking [poison mushrooms]) this world’s tiniest violin playing motherfucker who thinks everything revolves around him.
“What have you done to me, you vengeful bitches?” = every death threat some MRA loser asshole with a wounded ego has sent a woman on Twitter.
I love this movie.