Good Taste Run Amok | Movies | Style Weekly

Your mileage with Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla” is going to depend on what you expect from a movie about Priscilla Presley’s marriage to Elvis. If you’re looking for a movie that scores points on the King, who courted a 14-year-old girl, with her parents’ tentative approval, while serving as the most famous American soldier in the world, you’re going to be disappointed. Coppola doesn’t pretend that the relationship isn’t creepy, but she doesn’t judge it either, taking it on its own terms. This coolness of perspective is among the film’s great strengths. In an age that fetishizes self-righteous indignation, Coppola holds back.

The director holds back in other fashions as well, though, as “Priscilla” finds her doubling down on her moody austerity. This is neither a traditional biopic for Oscar season, nor a lurid, gossipy journey into the abyss of stardom. If Coppola’s combating the idea that Priscilla’s marriage to Elvis was simply a matter of arranged exploitation, she also resists the temptation to revel in the kinetic thrills of experiencing many a woman’s dream at the time. For Coppola, Priscilla’s marriage to Elvis was mostly a game of sitting in Graceland’s vast and underlit chambers, waiting around while Elvis made movies, or released songs, or dallied with fellow icons like Ann-Margaret. Presley’s memoir, “Elvis and Me,” had Hollywood dish, which Coppola doesn’t indulge. It’s difficult to overstate how little is going on in this movie most of the time. “Priscilla” is another of Coppola’s mood rings, with a heavier than usual debt to the textural emphases of slow cinema.

The film is pointedly and bizarrely disconnected from the outside world, especially given the vast access its subjects presumably possessed. The story is another of her “little girl trapped” fables. Think “The Virgin Suicides” or “Marie Antoinette” or “Lost in Translation,” only without their wild emotional swings and volatility. “Priscilla” is so cramped and compressed that we never even see a proper establishing shot of Graceland, which, as visually defined by Coppola, might as well be composed of two or three rooms. Whenever Elvis (Jacob Elordi) and Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) go out, to Vegas perhaps, or to the grounds to fire pistols, Coppola reduces their adventures to a few scenes and a few images, cropping as much outside life out of her frames as possible.

The aim of this visual strategy is legible: Despite her fame, Priscilla was a prisoner of social and personal constructs, belonging to a time that expected women to be subservient of the house, and to a man who barely knew who he was himself, who imprisoned her while fame imprisoned him. Coppola invests considerable and fetishistic energy on recreating Priscilla’s look, as she grows from a girl to an adult who dressed as Elvis wanted her to dress. Spaeny manages something tricky, conveying Priscilla’s maturation in her eyes. We can see Priscilla gradually growing up and Elvis, in his cocoon of depression and adulation and pill addiction, not noticing. Men in the audience may feel indicted: How much are we missing at home? This marriage is over long before the movie itself ends.

In this case, I still think Coppola’s minimalism is a cop-out, an excuse not to dramatize elements of the relationship that don’t lend themselves to her boutique art project. What was their sex life like? Elvis is skittish until Priscilla turns 18, and remains so, but what was the temperature of their relationship when things happened? I’m not asking for “Priscilla” to turn into softcore erotica, but I’m also tired of contemporary cinema’s ongoing fear of sex, one of the most polarizing and tantalizing dimensions of human life.

This omission seems important, as important as Coppola’s unwillingness to grapple with the racial dynamics that drove Don Siegel’s 1971 film, “The Beguiled,” which she remade into a dull Nicole Kidman vehicle a few years ago. Priscilla was a young woman who got to share the bed of Elvis, a sexy, highly neurotic man. What were the physical and emotional contours of that union? Coppola doesn’t get messy. Leaving sex behind, what was it like for Priscilla to come into money? We get a scene or two about that. Or fame? There’s a scene, in which she’s advised that she shouldn’t play with her dogs within eyeshot of fans. As an unadventurous middle-aged man who gets most of his thrills these days from the bakery, even I get out more than Coppola’s version of Priscilla and Elvis.

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Is it too much to ask that “Priscilla” occasionally be pleasurable? Coppola’s best films—“Somewhere” and “On the Rocks” come to mind—are sad and obsessive and yet willing to engage with the possibility that privilege is fun. If Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” was nothing but a glorious debauch, this film overcorrects in the other direction. Spin the best parts of both of these movies into a blender and you might have something. Was Priscilla and Elvis’ entire marriage a funeral? I wasn’t there, but I doubt it. It’s easy for rich people to decry money and adoration. Try paying your rent on minimum wage. That’s scary.

And yet … something in Coppola’s careful, aloof strategy works, too. Elordi, who is nearly a foot taller than Elvis, captures his strange mixture of halting sincerity and swagger. The actor does not put Elvis in quotation marks, playing his sincerity, well, sincerely, complicating the less savory matters of Elvis’ personality, such as his manipulativeness and abusive outbursts of anger. Elordi and Coppola are alive to Elvis’ profound loneliness.

As boring as much of “Priscilla” is, it gets into your bones anyway, and the final scene between Priscilla and Elvis is a knockout—a sonata of the unspoken. Elvis, in shadow, recedes into himself before our eyes, and those who know his story will find this image even more unmooring, as we know that life for him will get much worse. The final shot is of Priscilla in sunlight, in motion, yet there’s an undertow to this image of theoretical freedom. We know that she’s just escaped something that left its marks, defining her. Despite its disappointments, “Priscilla” stings.

In the spring of 2007, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez teamed up on “Grindhouse,” a double feature of faux 1970s-era horror movies that were separated by several trailers for other faux, nonexistent horror movies. Those trailers were directed by Rodgriguez as well as Edgar Wright, Rob Zombie, and Eli Roth, who back then was coming off “Cabin Fever” and the first two “Hostel” movies, the second of which seemed to more or less end his career. It was a strange time in the theaters, before the west was won by Marvel or other adventures in I.P. “Grindhouse” bombed, as it unsurprisingly only amused cinephiles, though Rodriguez’s trailer for “Machete” became two real, semi-amusing movies. Now, many years later, Roth’s “Thanksgiving” has been accorded the same expansion, returning him to the limelight of mainstream cinemas after years in quasi-video-on-demand (VOD) obscurity.

My point is that “Thanksgiving,” the new one, has an unusually storied origin, and it’s not quite just another slasher of the week. As a result, the movie is aimed at two audiences simultaneously: Roth’s audience, horror nerds my age who always thought he got a raw deal in the wake of the tasteless, yet atmospheric “Hostel part II,” and younger audiences who need something to unfurl on a screen larger than their phones while scanning said phones. Roth splits the difference. The grimy, ‘70s-sheen and schlock of the fake “Thanksgiving” trailer is gone, replaced with smooth, contemporary horror surfaces that play better to those who don’t care about ‘Grindhouse.” But the violence is gorier than you might expect, aimed at the fetishists.

Roth brings to “Thanksgiving” a general contempt for people that I appreciated in the wake of things like “Scream VI,” which watered the slasher genre down so much that the series now resembles an HR retreat. There’s a casual, bitter, anarchic air to ‘Thanksgiving” that harks back to Roth’s early movies. In the early 2000s, we didn’t obsess over empathy like we do now, which has ironically made us less empathetic in the present day. The opening scene of “Thanksgiving,” with people getting trampled and beaten to death over an early Black Friday event run amok, has legitimate satiric bite, and Roth stages it swiftly and mercilessly.

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Gina Gershon and Patrick Dempsey in Eli Roth's "Thanksgiving."

  • Gina Gershon and Patrick Dempsey in Eli Roth’s “Thanksgiving.”

After that, things settle into more predictable rhythms, but Roth continually puts more care into the proceedings that you expect. For instance, there is an amusing scene with a gun dealer that pays prolonged and elaborate homage to the Steven Prince scene in “Taxi Driver.” Most of the audience for this movie won’t get it, but you appreciate Roth’s attention to the little things. The chorography of the murders is consistently confident, and this thing, at just over 100 minutes, runs like a freight train. Make no mistake: Roth gives you what you pay for, especially compared to that other holiday-themed horror movie currently making the rounds, the dreadful “It’s a Wonderful Knife.”

But I still noticed Roth pulling his punches. This movie has that annoying new “Scream” series thing where all the teen characters are generically likable and can’t die. They are all perfectly polished for their Clairol ads, chipper, and resourceful and plucky. Do people remember what slashers were like in the 1970s and ‘80s? They were violent and fraught with sexual hysteria, and the teens were reprehensible morons who existed to drink, fornicate, and die. The movies were offensive and that’s one reason why people loved them. Slasher movies are far more competently made today, but they’ve mostly been tamed. Thank the lord for Damien Leone, whose “Terrifier” series is still fighting the good fight.

To see what I mean, compare the new “Thanksgiving” to Roth’s “Grindhouse” trailer, a perfect 2 ½ minute sick joke. He keeps most of that trailer’s bits here and softens them. Roth’s decisions make good business sense. He has a potential career-reviver here and he knows it. I respect his canniness while missing the impudence that got him excommunicated to begin with. But those are horror-nerd concerns. I’m not to be trusted for mainstream tastes. I was one of the six people who saw and enjoyed “Grindhouse.”

“Priscilla” and “Thanksgiving” are both in theaters everywhere.

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