A movie that’s wholly bad more or less speaks for itself. Its level of awareness of its own badness will vary; the full scope and exact nature of its awfulness will, like a Tolstoy marriage, be unhappy in its own way.
But a movie that shows promise is always more wrenching, somehow, when it goes wrong, like watching someone you thought was savvy take an oversize tricycle out on a road studded with sinkholes, and realizing too late that their strategy for navigation is Pedal So Fast The Holes Don’t Notice I’m Here.
Which brings us to Beautiful Creatures!
Beautiful Creatures is a contemporary Southern Gothic story about family, a teen romance, and a supernatural-standoff epic, all elements that in one movie or another have been executed well – at times, more than one of these at once! And throughout the movie, there are small sparks of promise, of genuine darkness, of scenery-devouring camp. However, the movie tries to pedal so hard over its own staggeringly-sketchy thematic foundations that you end up clenching your armrests, waiting for the inevitable.
To spare you the suspense, here are ten things you should know.
1. If you saw the trailer for this movie and entertained the idea that this would be a movie in which hyper-religious conservatives would leverage their power in a small Southern community as an external struggle with which the internally-warring spellcasters would have to contend, I can see where you’d think that. The trailer definitely suggested it. It’s a good thought! Extremism in the face of those who are different, especially when they have internal struggles, could be a powerful narrative!
It’s not, of course. But it could be!
2. The religious extremists actually just form one of those halfhearted animated backdrops from the Jem and the Holograms cartoon, and so everyone is super-religious and conservative but powerless, and it’s just one more thing to remind you that being in the South sucks, and being in this town sucks, and if you are a caster patriarch who has to live in the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil house because your greatgreatgreat founded the town, then it’s no wonder you eventually turn into Jeremy Irons, but we’ll get there. If you think this is symbolic of how this movie teases interesting concepts it later sinkholes, that’s probably wise of you!
3. First we have to deal with our leads! Ethan is a young man who is Better Than This Town, as we are meant to see from his book wall, which features such classics as On the Road and The Fountainhead and Catcher in the Rye and Slaughterhouse Five, which means that none of the jerkbag things that he does later are surprises, which I guess is handy. He’s played by Alden Erenreich, who seems to be capable when someone is not screaming “CHARMING! MORE CHARMING!” at him through a megaphone, as happened here for 90 minutes straight. It’s kind of a shame, because there are some interesting hints here of the power dynamics that shift when the young woman in the couple is the one with the supernatural and the sort of guy who would handle that well, and at times it almost worked. Almost.
Alice Englert is also good (naturalistic and compelling and reminding me in flashes of a just-beginning Jennifer Jason Leigh), and does what she can when her genuinely-interesting hints of family drama are constantly swallowed by her having to pretend to be deeply in love with a young man who, at the start of the movie, accepts a date from the School Alpha Girl he’d sneak-dumped over the summer because he doesn’t have the guts to say no. However, despite seeing through his initial try-hard, young Lena soon succumbs to Charm Blast 11, and every once in a while we even buy it, which is crucial when that City Limits sign you made out on until it literally caught fire becomes a crucial plot point.
4. In fact, let’s just talk about some plot points, because the spellcaster canon is sort of out of control and also makes you want to throw something. So on every caster’s 16th birthday they are “claimed” either by the Dark or the Light, vague sources of power that seem to define the nature of your magic. I accept this surgically-grafted puppy. However, though some casty business is nebulously presented, some things are for sure. One, stated and canonically supported when Lena explains that Uncle Macon used to be Dark but has gone to the Light for her sake, and Ethan experiences a rare moment of lucidity and asks if she can’t just choose for herself, then, too: “A woman’s nature chooses for her.” Also she’s the most powerful witch in 5,000 years and the solstice will be Big Trouble if she turns dark because then humanity will be wiped from the earth probably because of her period, but also that’s the day of the mandatory schoolwide Civil War reenactment (actual thing) and the locket Ethan found in the graveyard that belonged to Lena’s ancestor Genevieve (actual thing) relates to that curse no one is telling Lena about where Genevieve brought her Confederate boyfriend back from the dead and that’s a big no-no, so she went evil and killed him again immediately and then also killed a bunch of Union soldiers as I laughed and laughed, and now she’s cursed to a thing no one even knows because of Genevieve. (if you go see it, whisper “Misandryyyyy” to yourself as she kills the shit out of like twenty guys, it is some great stuff.)
5. And what happens when a lady witch goes to the Dark? SLUTVILLE, of course! Enter Emmy Rossum as Ridley, who does everything she possibly can in a role where she was a cousin-Lena-protector until the very last second, at which point the Dark claimed her, and she instantly, while still physically recovering and pressed against a utility pole for support, summoned a guy across train track so he’d be hit, just because she can, because Bitches, Am I Right? The family cast her out immediately, though it sounds like they also sort of cast her out before anything even happened, and now they all shun her and ignore her incredibly pertinent questions about why the family are willing to go to such lengths for Lena and did jack shit for her. (She ends up seducing Ethan’s best friend and teaching him how to make bullets with his mind. I feel some things in this movie could have been better explained.)
Enter also Emma Thompson, light of my life, who read this script, asked, “This Dark Sexy Witch horseshit seems like it’s ripe for being made fun of – how broad did you want it? Can I go broader? Great,” and delivered. As both the fussy town matriarch Mrs. WhoCares and the borrowing-a-body supersiren Sarafine, she is pitch-perfect; in her Sarafine scenes with brother Jeremy Iron (during which they give Hansel and Gretel a run for their money in the Incest Subtext division), she’s so camp-yet-compelling that Jeremy Irons honestly just drops his Southern accent in the face of it. A+, would watch again.
6. The other casting coup here is Viola Davis, who was an amazing score considering Amma’s jobs in the film are to guard the caster library as her ancestors have done, and to commune with the spirits of her ancestors to provide magical assistance to Jeremy Irons. (Yup, actual Magical Negro. Thanks, movie.) The fact that the library was moved from DC only by request of the very scary Nancy Reagan (topical!) and her ancestors are all still right here is not examined. She does far, far more than the part deserves. I wish they had followed up on the fact that she and Jeremy Irons had great chemistry (and where, I guess to the movie’s credit, she snaps at him about why and how she’s still expected to do him favors); I also wish I had a screenshot of the point at which Lena and Ethan run up and demand she help them in the caster library, and she gives them a solid contender for the best “Tired of This White Nonsense” face ever committed to film.
7. The movie isn’t totally without merit – the family dynamics are often interesting or at last amusing (reflected in the crumbling Southern mansion and its ultramodern entrance hall), and at least some of the family members seem to have the right reaction to the fact that the human kid keeps refusing to leave Lena alone even for a second, ever, goddamn, sir, when the lady says go home why don’t you just go? We see the prickly relationship between Lena and Macon, the criminally-underused Eileen Atkins, and the human Oscar Wilde sketch that is Kyle Gallner, appearing as Ridley’s younger brother Larkin Ravenwood, which some thirteen-year-old with a Tumblr has already named her cat. Once Ridley brings Ethan to dinner against his will (you know bitches and how they do), and she and Lena make the dining room spin wildly as they fight about who gets to stay at the dinner, and there’s a priceless cut to Larkin still calmly eating, and I know that cousin, and I respect that cousin.
The actual spinning table part I am less sure of, especially because some of the best moment in this movie are the subtler uses of power by casters who never actually verbally cast anything. One of the film’s bet and genuinely darkest moments is when the morally-iffy Macon (Jeremy Irons) invites Ethan inside and asks a fatherly “what are your plans for the future” question, then compels him with some unknown demand for Darkest Truth, and Ethan tries to talk about his college plans and instead spills his deepest fears about a life of quiet desperation. That is a terrifying power to have enacted on you! It’s enough to make you sympathize with poor Ethan. (Almost. He spends plenty of time telling her BS things about how he’s only yelling at her because he cares and also she’s being so emotional right now. We’ve seen your Ayn Rand wall, sir; there’s no fooling us.)
8. However, the spinning table part does reflect a certain level of filmmaking at work here, on a directing level. When it’s meant to be funny, it often is! When it’ meant to be dramatic, it’s also often funny. The best one might be after Lena, realizing the curse means she’ll have to kill who she loves, wipes Ethan’s memory of ever knowing her and accepts her sacrifice as part of the price of growing up. While he goes about his daily business, sad Lena sits in the family room at the fireplace, as the camera slowly swivels around to reveal Jeremy Irons literally actually playing the scene’s sad-piano score. I don’t care if it’s intentional; I laughed extremely hard.
9. But the film, at times through sheer willpower, is just promising enough in the aggregate that I was disappointed in the final standoff at Lena’s 16th birthday party-slash-Civil War reenactment, in which Ethan is shot by his friend’s mind-bullet (you remember those), and then dies, but it turns out it’s not Ethan, it’s Macon PRETENDING to be Ethan, and Larkin pretending to be Macon (and the implied and amazing assumption that not one person there expected Larkin to show up to a damn second of this), because Macon once made a promise to Ethan’s mother who he was secretly in love with that he wouldn’t let anything happen to Ethan (sure). Lena, realizing that that tricky curse language meant only that she had to kill SOMEONE she loved without naming names, cries over Macon’s body, as Sarafine shows up and gets Super Pissed to the Max about how this party is going.
That means it’s time for the standoff with her mother, when Lena proves she’s the most powerful witch ever by shouting that she chooses to be both Light and Dark, which is fine, and then testing the scope of her power by DISAPPEARING THE MOON. Lena then pardons Ridley (in a nice beat), who sluts off into the sunset, I guess?, and settles in with Sarafine for a long and convoluted cliché-off, and she kills her own mom without much emotion, which is fine, since by now you’re just worried about the effect all this is having on tides.
10. In case you think the film will wrap up these numerous plots with care and detail, we get a coda in which none of the family casters appear, and in which Lena and Amma are friends, and Ethan is leaving town on a tour of colleges and still doesn’t remember Lena at all, save for a brief “have a nice summer” chat in the library during which he’s very nice and vague and she is struggling not to barf, which was some nice acting, and then he leaves town, and I thought for a minute that we had an actual bittersweet ending about never getting everything you want and life is a series of tough compromises and I was impressed.
Then he hits the edge of town, and despite the fact that her powers rendered her capable of changing the memories of not just Ethan, but everyone in the entire town, she forgot to de-scorch that sign they banged in front of as their hormones lit it on fire. He piles out of the car and screams her name and she looks up from her library book and SMASH CUT TO END OF MOVIE.
And with that, the tricycle-rider of this movie wobbles into its final sinkhole, and just gives up and walks off forever. I blame them not at all.