“I didn’t want you to be misled”
There’s a lot to like about Don Siegel‘s 1971 adaptation of Thomas Cullinan‘s A Painted Devil. Unfortunately, there’s just as much left wanting. It built towards a tense finale of malicious intent, the kind that’s able to turn what was a simple wartime drama into a metaphorical representation of fear and paranoia pitting man against woman in a battle of physical strength opposite will. Where it goes wrong, however, is in the decision to draw its lead character as the unequivocal bad guy. Here’s an injured Union soldier trapped in the South during the Civil War at a school for girls. By purposefully pitting them against one another in search of an advantage, “McB” loses his opportunity to earn sympathy from us. His selfish desires deserve their punishment.
The themes therefore become muddled—Siegel’s self-professed goal to show women as “castrators” failing to fully materialize since any harm befalling their uninvited guest is of his own doing. Without receiving a relatable victim caught in the clutches of vindictive oppressors, the second act’s shift towards a darkly gothic horror tint is somewhat strained. This misfortune could prove Sofia Coppola‘s gain, though, her twenty-first century directorial sensibilities allowing for a more nuanced interpretation than what Siegel and star Clint Eastwood delivered forty-plus years ago. If the trailer were any indication, her rendition of The Beguiled would bear its teeth and embrace its “us versus them” mentality from the start since it looked like a suspenseful mood piece with rage-fueled, psychopathic hunger. Coppola appeared to have fixed Siegel’s mistakes.
Interestingly enough, that trailer is grossly misleading. Coppola does fix his mistakes, but not by enhancing the horror undertones. She removes them. She turns a pulpy treatise on war’s psychological atrocities far-removed from the frontlines into an authentic character piece dealing with jealousy, lust, and betrayal. The major story beats are identical, but the performances progressing each relationship forward transform how we see these tragic figures. Rather than create an atmosphere of deceit, Coppola’s version of Farnsworth Seminary breeds promise through residents possessed with a yearning for peace, trust, and compassion. Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) doesn’t want an enemy combatant (Colin Farrell‘s John McBurney) on her property, but she knows better than to assume he’s a monster. Rumors or not, soldiers from the North and South aren’t so different.
It’s amazing how much can change with a tonal tweak. Farrell’s version of McBurney is one of appreciation. He may fall prey to the affection of more than one woman on the premises (those of age or close to it being Kidman’s Martha, Kirsten Dunst‘s teacher Edwina, and Elle Fanning‘s student Alicia), but he only provokes one (that we see) to continue further along that path. Coppola allows human nature to dictate actions rather than use hurtful memories shown via flashback to force motivations. The reasons these women should distrust men are replaced by the potential to let one close after years without the possibility. And John is so wonderfully acted with kindness, humor, and gratitude that we assume he’ll act honorably despite knowing those odds are slim.
This dynamic provides a different kind of tension because it’s working towards real love—something Siegel’s version doesn’t. We don’t dismiss McBurney’s actions as false or assume his every move merely inches closer to an escape or giving credence to the stereotype of Northern predator maliciously feeding on Southern women. John’s genuine in this version. He’s as realistically drawn as the women, each with a mixture of necessary caution and honest excitement. For two-thirds of the runtime we witness no ill intent. Coppola lulls us into a sense of security by presenting an evolution from prisoner versus jailors to symbiotic community. They saved his life and now he works to return the favor. He wants to stay on not because saying so manipulates them, but because it’s true.
As such the aftermath of a decision with devastating ripples arrives devoid of expectation. Whereas Eastwood’s McB was driven by lust, Farrell’s has love. We don’t know whose bed he will climb into, only that he will choose one. We don’t assume the ramifications of that choice because we’re unsure of the emotional potency of betrayal felt by those he shuns. Even more than Siegel’s film, however, Coppola ensures the ensuing chaos conjures fear. McBurney’s reaction to the discovery of what occurs is understandable from his perspective. But so too is the women’s sense of terror at his unpredictability. Fear births a cold pragmatism rather than vengeful show of spite. Frankly that emotionless acceptance of a single horrific act is scarier than any moment of insanity ever could.
The gender war is therefore excised for one of pure survival. McBurney is no longer the bald epitome of man’s deception for selfish gain at the psychological and physical detriment of women. No, he becomes just as complex and innocent as them. His attraction is put on equal footing as theirs rather than being colored as lecherous in opposition to their purity, his time at war just as lacking in physical contact as theirs has proven. The result means that there is no true good entity or bad. A lot of wrong does ultimately occur, but this film’s blame can be shared rather than monopolized by one character. Instead of being about gender, Coppola’s adaptation targets humanity’s universal penchant for sin on both sides of the aisle.
Her climax becomes nuanced and potent. The black and white nature of creating a revenge story prevented Siegel’s film from conjuring that instance of surprise when carefully vetted plans are set in motion. Coppola lets us remain in the dark as to what may come. She lets the anger that erupts exist as a heat of the moment, out of character error in judgment rather than the swift removal of a curtain shrouding something that was always there. Contrition becomes a major player in a way that renders what happens more devastatingly bold. We never treated anything Eastwood’s McB did as more than a game, but Farrell’s McBurney wears everything on his sleeve. We sympathize with his plight and yet still cannot damn the women for their response.
Some events here do seem to occur with far less build-up than its predecessor and therefore appear more randomly convenient than logically acceptable, but maybe I only felt that because I knew what was coming and wondered if the lack of its foreshadowing meant Coppola made alterations. The big change she did enact—removing the slave character Hallie—seemed on paper a mistake. She was the only woman that stood up to McB’s manipulations, her place in that story crucial to its progression. Because Coppola removed McBurney’s insidious nature, however, Hallie’s erasure doesn’t harm the story told. It may have been the wrong ethical choice, but it does make sense artistically. So I’ll give Coppola the benefit of the doubt since her stunning adaptation does everything else right.
 (l to r.) Emma Howard as Emily; Kirsten Dunst as Edwina; Elle Fanning as Alicia; Oona Laurence as Amy; Angourie Rice as Jane; Addison Riecke as Marie; and Nicole Kidman as Miss Martha in Focus Features’ atmospheric thriller THE BEGUILED; written for the screen and directed by Sofia Coppola. Credit: Ben Rothstein / Focus Features
 Colin Farrell stars as John McBurney in Focus Features’ atmospheric thriller THE BEGUILED; written for the screen and directed by Sofia Coppola. Credit: Ben Rothstein / Focus Features
 Elle Fanning stars as Alicia in Focus Features’ atmospheric thriller THE BEGUILED; written for the screen and directed by Sofia Coppola. Credit: Ben Rothstein / Focus Features