Saturday, June 24, 2017

Review: "The Beguiled"

Director: Sofia Coppola
Runtime: 94 minutes

"There's a war going on, out there, somewhere..." So goes the opening line of current Broadway smash Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. Cannons and guns wreak havoc in the periphery, while a different conflict is waged in the battlefield of opera houses and parlors among those privileged enough to get out of service. A similar framing device hangs over the characters of The Beguiled as well, draped over like a protective veil made of smoke, fog, and moss. Both works exist in realms of refinement, though the latter finds its characters staving off the ugly reality bubbling just outside their line of sight. 

Given that this is a Sofia Coppola film, none of this is terribly surprising. Her specialty has always been her ability to chronicle the shut-off bubbles, specifically of upper class white women. Whether haunting hotel hallways amid the skyscrapers of Tokyo, or traipsing through an unguarded mansion in Beverly Hills, the notion of isolation is the connective thread holding her oeuvre together. Her adaptation of Thomas Cullinan's novel (previously adapted in the 70s with Clint Eastwood) immediately establishes itself as more of the same, at least thematically. 

But the steady progression of The Beguiled (easily her tightest work of pacing) stealthily gives way to something unexpected: a heated, simmering psychological cat-and-mouse game. Or, rather, a cat-and-mice game. Beneath the Southern hospitality and longing glances cast out of windows is a delicious, cunning genre picture ready to claw its way out at any given moment. For once, Coppola allows her female characters to have their bubble punctured, and even violated. The muffled cannon blasts pepper the film's soundscape, but a different, twisty conflict is about to erupt not on the battlefield, but in a place designed to instill manners. 

It takes only a few minutes before Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) collapses on the doorstep of the Farnsworth home. Headed by the steely Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), the household's exterior suggests a lack of maintenance, and even disarray. But lessons is music, etiquette, sewing, and French still occupy the time of the girls boarded up their by their wealthy Confederate families. And, being the proper Southern ladies they are, Martha's students and their teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) help McBurney inside to treat his wounds. 

McBurney is obviously injured, but there's still a palpable shock for the girls (and, frankly, the viewer), when his gruesome leg injury appears. Coppola loves her introverted, wan ladies, so to see something so lurid is a bit of a jolt. Not soon after, Miss Martha is sewing up McBurney's wound, in a grisly closeup that wouldn't seem out of place in a Guillermo Del Toro drama. Amid all of this, there is a great deal of lustrous closeups of Mr. Farrell's exposed chest and just as much heaving and "oh, my" breathing from the ladies. 

Coppola has dipped her toes into new territory, and while she never takes a full plunge, her restraint is measured rather than timid. With a thick coat of fog, smoke, and mist smeared across many shots, The Beguiled lands firmly in the territory of Southern Gothic storytelling, albeit with an unconventional structure and sense of pace. 

Using only natural/available light (daylight, candles, etc...), The Beguiled has the painterly look of Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, albeit with a color scheme more reminiscent of Goya or El Greco. Amid all the murk, the cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd conjures up an array of sharp images. Most transfixing are the closeups, of people handling tools, utensils, or bowls. The Farnsworth Academy may be a bit Brigadoon-esque in its removal from the "real" world, but it's still grounded in a tactile sense of place and time. The fineries of life are all these girls and women have to hold on to, other than each other. And so they clasp on, never giving an inch, whether it's to a wine glass or a gun. 

Inevitably, a misshapen lust triangle emerges from the fog, and Coppola finally lights the fuse that's been sitting in the corner the whole time. Coppola has shown she can generate tension (Taissa Farmiga playing with a gun in The Bling Ring), but it's never been stretched out in any of her films. The wind up is masterfully done, and when the fuse finally reaches its lengthy end, the resulting display doesn't underwhelm. 

There is little outright violence in The Beguiled, despite the early flash of gore, though what occurs lands well. More compelling, however, are the little digs and power plays initiated through dialogue, glances, and gestures. Kidman, delivering an antidote to her work in Cold Mountain, takes center stage amid the uniformly strong ensemble. In every meeting (many of which involve most of, or all, of the cast), he eyes seem to be in constant motion. She's keeping tabs on Edwina, the students, and McBurney all at once. The subtlety on display is, like the film as a whole, a wicked delight. Dunst, a Coppola regular, is gently and affecting as Edwina, who wants nothing more than to get as far away as possible. Farrell, as the object of the film's Female Gaze, is excellent too, crafting an intelligent portrait of a man who goes from victim to manipulator (and then back again). 

Tonally, it's not all doom and gloom and ripped bodices. There is a tart sense of humor that hangs in the air along with the perfume, sweat, and hormones. At times, The Beguiled is basically a Gothic-accented comedy of manners. That is, until certain lines are crossed, and the battle lines are drawn. The bubble must be protected after all, and it will be done with a stiff upper lip, a beautiful gown, a prayer, and a very carefully constructed recipe. With a flirty, dangerous wink, Coppola signs off with one of those gems of Southern charm that can be wielded as an invitation or a weapon: Y'all come back now...

Grade: A-

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Review: "It Comes at Night"

Director: Trey Edward Shults
Runtime: 97 minutes

Clear-cut answers are hard to come by in It Comes at Night. A catastrophe of some sort, manifesting in the form of a bubonic plague-esque infection, has done its damage. And based on the boarded up home of the main characters, it seems that people aren't too keen on socializing outside of their family. The story opens with a mercy killing, the kind we've seen in any number of post-apocalyptic films and TV shows. But what follows, despite some eventual bloodletting, is hardly standard issue fare. Despite the looming sense of the unknown, the film is ultimately a chamber drama that happens to unfold in a nightmarish scenario. What need is there for answers to big questions when uncertainty is sitting right next to you at the dinner table?

Any given festival circuit is full of splashy debut features. Trey Edward Shults had his at last year's Sundance, with the nervy psychological drama Krisha. Despite its shoe-string budget, the film did what any cinematic calling card should do: introduce potential. Following up on said potential is another matter entirely. For Houston-born Shults, however, lightning has actually managed to strike twice. If anything, it has struck with even more intensity than before. It Comes at Night retains the strengths of Krisha, while applying them to a more established budget and a cast of professional performers. But the film is not exactly a major leap forward for Shults, though this is not necessarily a bad thing. Rather, it's a lateral move, taking on similar issues and themes, but merely restating them in a new setting and with newfound luxury. It may seem like overkill to attempt a second impression after your first went over so well, but in the end, Shults' sophomore effort more than justifies itself.

It Comes at Night does not immediately register as a work derived from personal experience. With its apocalyptic setting, genre demands appear to be at the forefront of the film's concerns (they're certainly behind the marketing campaign). But despite the long shots of a camera gliding down a dark hallway and some gory dream sequences, Shults' film is anything but predictable. There are trace elements of what we would expect from this sort of scenario (blood dripping from a mouth, the ravages of a horrific infection, things going bump in the night), and they are indeed disturbing. But all of that pales in comparison to what It Comes at Night pulls off in its final act, which is a bleak, bruising, and haunting as anything in recent memory. 

The mercy killing that opens the film is not that of an acquaintance or ally, but of a father and grandfather. It is a death hastened out of necessity, but one that also reduces a household from a family of four to a family of three. There is magnitude in this kind of loss. Each person in the house now has one person fewer to rely on. Or talk to. Or laugh with. And so it's no surprise that when Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) encounter a new person, they immediately go on edge. 

The new person in question is Will (Christopher Abbott), caught as he tries to break in to Paul and Sarah's home for food and supplies. Like Paul, Will is a husband and father. His wife and child (Riley Keough and Griffin Faulkner) are 15 miles away, and desperately waiting for him to return. "Have you seen anyone else?" asks Paul. "No," says Will. He could be telling the truth. He could be lying. If it's the latter, what might he be concealing? It Comes at Night rarely answers questions, even when you might beg for it to give just a shred of evidence in either direction. But in Shults' capable hands, it matters gravely to the characters, but doesn't hinder engagement for the viewer. 

Initially, the films seems lopsided in structure. After the ominous beginning, Shults dials down the dread and suspense, and punctures the mood with bits of levity and charm. One montage is (relatively) joyous, observing two different families working and learning together. You'd be forgiven for thinking that Shults had forgotten what type of story he was telling. But the film's steadily unnerving progression ultimately reveals that Shults and his collaborators have known precisely how to play this all from the get go. No matter how innocent or kind a person seems, few things arouse suspicion like a story that fails to fully add up. All it takes is one stray remark, and the atmosphere in the house undergoes an irrevocable shift. 

Aided by a dynamic score (by Brian McOmber) and claustrophobic photography, Shults is able to conjure up a feeling of imminent disaster that could plausibly stem from supernatural or mundane sources. The ramifications of either are terrifying. If there is some boogeyman out there, then the world is even more frightening than we thought. If it's something totally normal, then it only illustrates how far humanity has fallen. An early scene involves a montage of closeups of a print of Bruegel the Elder's "Triump of Death," filled with images both surreal and ordinary. They exist side by side, feeding into each other. Is there really some singular entity out there to fear? It doesn't matter. The mere notion that there could be is all it takes for paranoia to spread.

Grade: A-