But while the pace of “The Beguiled” might be new for Coppola, who’s known for her languorous portraits of ennui and dislocation, the film’s evocative flair for detail is par for the course. Here is a writer-director who always sees her characters as reflections of their hyper-specific environments, who is compelled by the rifts between women and the worlds they inhabit and insists on giving equal thought to both sides of that divide. This is Coppola’s third period piece, and once again it finds her using the trappings of another time to better convey the timelessness of its longing and loneliness, flowing through history like the fluorescent chemical dye of a magnetic scan.
One shot of the untended weeds growing around the seminary is all we need to recognize that nature will overtake the house as naturally as it will the women inside of it; one blast of distant cannon fire is all we need to appreciate that innocence is fleeting, even in the eye of a storm; one look from Edwina is all we need to feel how the tone of a room can change when a sisterhood is interrupted.
Coppola has never been quite so concise, she’s never conceived of a more perfect visual rhyme than the one between the blue bow that ties together Edwina’s shirt (and begs to be pulled) and the blue cloth that Amy ties around the property gates to signal the presence of a Union soldier.
On the other hand, Coppola has also never been quite so verbose, as it often feels like there’s more dialogue in “The Beguiled” than there is in her previous five features combined. That’s not actually true, of course, but maybe it feels that way because her cast makes a delightfully indulgent meal of her words. Every line in the first half of the film is delivered as a double entendre, Farrell somehow managing to keep a straight face as he looks across the dinner table and tells Martha that “her roses need pruning,” or talks to some of the other girls about his favorite kind of pie.
Finally, Coppola is going to get credit for how funny she can be, as the humor here is often much less ambiguous than the twin strippers in “Somewhere” or the venomous satire that rotted “The Bling Ring” from the inside out. And “The Beguiled” only gets funnier as temptation turns into action and the shit hits the fan, as Coppola seals every delirious moment of bloodshed with a smirk.
Even the most important character beats are played for gently sadistic laughs; there’s tons of perverse amusement in the moment when John screams “I’m not a man anymore!” after losing an important appendage (but not the one you think). And his loss is the film’s gain, as “The Beguiled” is at its best and most complex as John loses his physical control over the girls, and Coppola’s beautifully posed interior shots give way to outright anarchy; if the story’s first half is shot to look like “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” its second might owe more to “Stoker.”
By the time Coppola unveils her haunting final shot and lets it linger for a minute, her wildly thrilling new movie has made one thing very clear: Even the most prim and possessed of women have always had needs, but men ought to be careful who they fuck with.
“The Beguiled” premiered in Competition at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Focus Features will open the film in theaters on June 23.