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  • Writer's pictureMary Kay McBrayer


Here are some alternate taglines for Sofia Coppola's genius southern gothic retelling, The Beguiled: You got the wrong one.Women during the heyday of insincere bastards.Southern hospitality is overall mean.Castration fear. None of them is as good as the original tagline, though, which Corporal John McBurney (Colin Ferrell) screams from offstage: "What have you done, you vengeful bitches?" [This is where the spoilers begin. You should stop reading here if you don't want to hear me analyze in detail actual events that are not depicted in the trailer.]

One of my favorite things in the world--after hearing other people's drama--is to watch other people's extreme reactions, especially if they're people I know. I went through a period of adolescence when I tried to prank and boobytrap everyone.... Once I put one of those motion-detected shrunken head Halloween decorations in the microwave. When my mom opened it to heat her coffee, it screamed, "HAPPY HALLOWEEN! HEHEHEHEHHEHE." I didn't see it happen, but when she came outside where I was playing, covered in coffee head to toe, and said, "Mary Kay! There's coffee all over the kitchen now, aya!" I fell flat on the trampoline laughing.

I made her watch the trailer of The Beguiled, and during it, she said like five awesome things:[Colin Ferrell shaves his face] "Ooooooh. Who is that?"[Nicole Kidman looks at the camera] "Oh. Nicole. Mm."[Colin Ferrell stands up from the table choking] "Oh shit. She poisoned him! Get him, Nicole."[Nicole Kidman covered in blood] "HAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHA. Bastard."["What have you done?"] "What have they done? What have YOU done? I got to go see this. Wait, what DID she do?" What did she do indeed. Let me tell you, unlike in the 1971 remake, Miss Martha holds it down. She is powerful and beautiful and almost blue she's so white and drawn and severe and just breathtakingly intense. Here's a list of dope shit she does in the name of her own integrity, which I think it part of the point of this whole movie:

  • She says this to Colin Farrell: "You are a most unwelcome visitor. We do not propose to entertain you." Reread that shit. She says that TO COLIN FARRELL. I like to consider myself a woman of pretty remarkable resolve, but I doubt I could get a sentence together when staring him straight in the face. It'd make me stupid, like I was staring straight into the fucking sun.

  • Miss Martha beguiles the confederacy by giving them a late dinner--by the way, they show up at nighttime WHICH YOU DO NOT FUCKING DO unless you want us to come out the front door swinging--when she has a Yankee deserter in the next room. Miss Martha says (and this is honestly probably my personal favorite quote), "When they saw me, they said there's nothing more terrifying than a startled woman with a gun." To which I threw up the WTF-are-you-doing hand: why the hell would you startle someone who has always had to think like prey? Our fight-or-flight is ON 24/7, son!

  • She is cooler than Freddy Jackson sipping a milkshake in a snowstorm in a dorm room at the AU when she's in crisis. a. She sews up a stranger's leg. b. She sponge bathes him for hours and doesn't even get gross with it--not that I would I'm just saying one could and she doesn't. c. She keeps her priorities in line. d. When Edwina pushes ol' boy down the stairs because he is COMING AT HER, and he gets a compound fracture at the bottom, she doesn't freak out. She doesn't even confront Edwina or Carol about WHAT THE FUCK, Y'ALL, she says, "Get him on the table."

  • I had to make a new bullet for this one: she makes the executive decision to CUT OFF HIS LEG, even though she tells Edwina, "I'm not a surgeon." And when Edwina protests, she says, "What would you have me do? Do you want him to die?" : subtext, even though he didn't choose us, he doesn't deserve to die. Don't let your pride get in the way of your integrity.

  • Even as she and the girls watch their poison kill him at the dinner table, she doesn't lose her cool: her hand was forced.

Which brings me to my most favorite, favorite thing about this film (not the original. Coppola's). These women are a beehive. Oh, they might fight among themselves, but they are all in it together. When you have to choose between a lover and your girlfriends, obviously you try to get both. And if you can't, you always side with the women, even if they did you wrong (which even Carol atones for). Even after Edwina gets with him, one of the girls (forgive me, I can't remember which) says, "BUT MISS EDWINA, YOU DON'T LIKE MUSHROOMS." Nice save, lady. Okay, but let me level with you for a second: y'all know there's a special hell for women who don't help other women, right?  This is the first thing about the movie that to me makes it an accurate depiction of southernness. Southern women get that. And they are discreet. When someone in your family dies, they know what you need without asking. You need casseroles. And you need somebody to come entertain your kids while you cry in the shower or just sit and do nothing. Or they make their husbands cut your grass. I wish there was a better, less patronizing term for this kind of teamwork than "girl power." "Feminism" doesn't quite fit either, because that's just understanding that women are humans, and the idea I'm trying to articulate is much more complex than that. It's anticipating other people, what they need, and giving it to them without them noticing you did it. It's almost like a hive-mind. Like a conjoined twin situation. What's that called? 

Back to more concrete theory. The Beguiled is obviously southern gothic. It's the house. It's the Civil War. It's the slavery that's not talked about. 

That's the one stray from the original that I wasn't totally behind. But I was glad Coppola didn't keep me waiting for Hallie to show up. Georgia-girl tells McBurney in the opening scenes that "the slaves left," which on the one hand cut all the color out of the film, but on the other hand OH YEAH, OF COURSE THEY DID. In a way, it's probably more authentic (and I hate myself a little for saying this, for sure) without Hallie in the film. 

Let me also disclaim, please, that in the original Hallie was the only aspect that got me through, that she was the one woman Clint Eastwood couldn't beguile even a little. She was the matriarch. And you know why else I support the exclusion of Hallie? Her absence makes Miss Martha your unquestioned protagonist. Otherwise, she is absolutely and incontestably not a good guy. Why not? BECAUSE IT'S REAL HARD TO SYMPATHIZE WITH A PERSON WHO OWNS SLAVES, Y'ALL. 

I mean, sorry not sorry. You own slaves and a hot coward chooses a younger, thinner blonde over you? I could give a fuck. Because you're a terrible human. AND WE HAVE ALL BEEN THERE AMIRITE GET A REAL STRUGGLE.

See? Pathos just boom, gone.

Not depicting Hallie makes us forget that this school is on an actual motherfucking plantation.

Which is a smart move that I respect and am also deeply troubled by.

Which is, of course, the mark of a true southerner, hating what you love.

George Dawes Green told this story on The Moth about how the matriarch of his family tricked Union soldiers. They demanded her silver. She said they'd already taken it. They said, Well what's this ground all turned up for? She said, That's where I buried my stillborn twins. They didn't believe her, so they dug it up and found her twins. They were so embarrassed they asked Sherman not to burn her house down.

The family story goes that she had buried the silver under the bodies of the twins. (From "The House that Sherman Didn't Burn")

See how that made you feel? A mixture of delight and horror? Welcome to the South.

Here's a less severe example of that. My friend who is a nurse came with me to see this movie after working at Grady hospital (y'all know Grady? it's nutso), and when Miss Martha says in her bloodstained nightgown, "Go to the smokehouse and get the saw. And bring me the anatomy book," both of us sat up, and my friend said involuntarily, "That's awesome. I want to do that," and then denied ever speaking when we got out to the car.

And the example in The Beguiled of true southernness that I hate that I love the most is in Edwina. The spurned teacher. Who was also thrown over for a younger, thinner blonde. She rises to the occasion when McBurney raises hell in the school by following him into his room and dragging a table in front of the door and seducing him with her "delicate beauty."

Or... is it seduction? It seems to me equal parts of getting what she wants at whatever cost and falling on the grenade for the other women. She essentially creates a diversion to buy them time to make a plan... and even apparently those painful 20 seconds of too-fast, button-confettied, fully-clothed floor fucking is enough. It's during that time during the brainstorming in the parlor that little mama remembers McBurney loves mushrooms.... Edwina's plan works, of course. Before that, McBurney rages that he's not a whole man. She has him prove to himself that he still is (here's your castration/masculinity crisis bit, here. I'm not super qualified to talk about masculinity, so I'll just mention here that I understand that it is real. And I understand that this is a way in which Edwina does that southern-woman-thing that I couldn't name earlier: she realizes what he needs and fixes it for him without letting him know she's doing it.)

But I think my friend said it best: "Man. Pussy power is real. He just came back into the dining room and apologized after that."

It was, like, a Lysistrata foil. Not its opposite. Because it was still a concerted group effort. Which is why the tagline #vengefulbitches is still, and always will be, the winner.

One more thing that makes this movie the ultimate southern gothic... how quick homeostasis is achieved after the crisis. These bitches are resilient. On the front porch the morning after McBurney's death, Miss Martha calls Edwina's attention to the sewing shut of his shroud, which is when she finds the ultimate teaching moment. The stitches are perfected. All the women carry him outside the gate. They close and lock the door. They return to the porch as a unit. We watch them stay there. We watch them stay there. We watch them stay there.

P.S. I don't own these photos. They all belong to The Beguiled and/or Focus Features. Just saying. And I couldn't find one of that last shot, even though I thought it was the most powerful... so I guess you'll have to go see it now. Again. Call me up, and I'll go with you. 

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