Review – Southern Discomfort (“The Beguiled”)

A wounded soldier behind enemy lines. Seven innocent women all alone in a large plantation home that take him in to help him heal. What could possibly go wrong? Who knows? Maybe Zoot will be very naughty and light the Holy Grail beacon and deserve a spanking! But I digress…
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Director Sofia Coppola remakes Clint Eastwood’s 1971 box office flop that, after seeing this Kentucky fried mess, remains a classic unto itself. Based on the novel, this version is served up with almost the same ingredients, but the taste in your mouth afterwards is far different. Colin Farrell (sporting his natural Irish accent) is U.S. Corporal John McBurney, a wounded Union soldier that is found by young Amy (Oona Laurence) in the woods, and brought to Miss Martha’s Seminary, a beautiful, but creepy Southern plantation.

Run by Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and taught by Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), the five children there are aghast at the sight of a half-dead solider at their school/home. Each one has their own opinion of Mr. McBurney: Amy likes him, youngest Marie (Addison Riecke) is afraid of him, teen Emily (Emma Howard) is indifferent, teen Jane (Angourie Rice) just plain hates him, and hair-always-in-her-face older teen Alicia (Elle Fanning) is somewhat interested in the manly-man at her feet. Martha, moved by compassion and her Christian ethics, decides not to hand him over to Confederates. . .at least not until his leg is healed.

Always a gentleman, John beguiles his way into the household and, once he’s good enough to walk with a cane, shows his respect by doing some extensive yard work. Meanwhile, he’s cast his eye on the repressed Edwina, who is smitten with the love-struck soldier and his kind words of love and adventure. Oddly, (and outta left-field) John bangs the timid Alicia because… reasons. Furious, Edwina pushes John down the stairs in a rage and nearly kills him. But it doesn’t kill him, it only cracks his leg so bad that Martha has to amputate it. Ouch!

Having your leg sliced off without your permission will really ruin your day and John goes from nice to “Hulk-smash!” in 2.5 seconds. Scary and dangerous to be around, Martha decides that John must be flushed from the plantation for good. Sofia Coppola admits that she saw Eastwood’s 1971 film, saying she wanted to retell the movie from the woman’s point of view. Unfortunately, in doing this, as both screenwriter and director, she lost all sense of scope and continuity.

Edited with a weed-wacker, this terribly disappointing remake has snippets of scenes that pop-up for no reason, and a third act that is so rushed it gave me whiplash. As with the 1971 version, Eastwood’s McBurney was a lustful cad that the girls hungrily threw themselves after. You could practically feel the sexual tension dripping off the screen. Here, there is no sexual tension or lust, and there is barley any kissing, save for a brief raping/love-making scene. And all of it feels manufactured and forced with none of it making any sense. Blame it on all the scattershot editing and bad adaption choices.

Uniformly, the acting is decent with Kidman and Dunst fully restrained in their parts; they hardly smile, which is very disturbing. Farrell is excellent, despite the questionable and odd direction he got from Coppola. And just like in the 1971 movie, Amy’s part is handled quite well, this time by Laurence, who’s been outstanding in Bad Moms and 2016’s Pete’s Dragon.                                    

  
The Beguiled (1971)
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Right before Clint Eastwood dove headlong into his directorial debut with Play Misty For Me, he got a quick lesson in studio politics with this creepy and Night Gallery-ish movie that went through several re-writes and an ending change that was picked by Universal Studios.
 
Smack dab during the Civil War, a Union soldier named John McBurney (Eastwood) is badly wounded and severely burned, but he’s found refuge thanks to Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), a 12-year-old girl who part of Miss Martha’s Seminary for Young Ladies. The headmistress, Miss Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page), however, is none-too-keen on having a half-dead officer in her antebellum plantation home with five students, a teacher, and a cook… all women! Her initial plan of nursing him back to health in order to hand him over to the enemy gets side-tracked when John’s (they call him “Mr. McB” for short) handsome looks and beguiling charm wins them over.
 
It soon resembles Castle Anthrax from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, as teacher Edwina Dabney (Elizabeth Hartman) gets all hot and bothered around him, sex-starved 17-year-old Carol (Jo Ann Harris) practically throws herself at him, and even little Amy wants a piece of him! John’s smarmy nature and lechery even turns acerbic Martha around (yeah, she wants him, too!) as soon he’s up and around with some crutches and a promise to be the man of the house. BUT! Jealously wields a bloody knife when Edwina catches John banging Carol, all hell breaks loose–including John’s leg, causing Martha to amputate it clean off. Ouch!
 
Pulling a quasi-Misery on John gets him super-mad and, getting drunk and seeking revenge, he threatens Martha and the girls. Oooooo! Bad move there, Johnny! In an ending straight out of an Alfred Hitchcock picture, the girls invite John to his – shall we say – last supper? Like I said, the script went through several drafts and, although the screenplay is credited to Irene Kamp and Albert Maltz, major revisions were made by Claude Traverse, when both Eastwood and director Don Siegel hated the “happy ending” that the studios liked. So, you get the book ending with all its “themes of sex, violence and vengeance”.
 
Eastwood, playing against type here as a real bastard and creep, is wonderful, but the movie flopped at the box office. Universal billed it as an “action packed Civil War” picture, when it turned out to be quite the opposite, and the people stayed away. Eastwood even complained about the publicity, but it was too little, too late. Oh, and check out the hot ‘n’ heavy steam coming off Harris and Eastwood on the screen; they were having a love affair at the time of the filming!    
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