Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Widows

I was admittedly curious to witness Steve McQueen’s approach to Widows. For my money, Steve McQueen is one of the finest filmmakers we have. He’s responsible for two movie masterpieces (Hunger and Shame), and the finest cinematic narrative document about American slavery (12 Years a Slave). Why then, I carefully wondered, would he embark on such a conventional genre like the heist thriller?

Upon seeing Widows, which is based on a British television series from the ‘80s, the answer was obvious: In order to avoid the conventions of the heist film, McQueen abandons them and creates his own unique narrative.

The film begins by cross cutting the last time four men see their wives, with the bloody aftermath of a disastrous heist that gets the men killed. McQueen has an uncanny ability to begin his movies in a way that makes us understand the characters immediately, while letting the audience know exactly what kind of film they’re in for. Widows is certainly no exception. The cross cutting of love (though the men in Widows have varying definitions of “love”) with tragedy is absolutely thrilling, and watching the women interact to their husbands tells us everything we need to know about the soon-to-be widows.
Once the dust settles and the men are buried, things begin to move quickly and frighteningly for Veronica (Viola Davis), whose husband, Harry (Liam Neeson), was the leader of the slain gang. Turns out that Harry and his team nabbed $2 million from a rival crime boss, Jamal (Brian Tyree Henry). And now that the money has burned up following the heist, Jamal informs Veronica that her husband’s debt is now on her. She has a month to deliver $2 million to Jamal, or else she’ll fall victim to Jamal’s psychotic brother, Jatemm (Daniel Kaluuya).

To save her own life, and make some extra cash in the process, Veronica enlists her fellow widows from Harry’s crew (Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Carrie Coon) for help on a new job. When Harry died, he left his exquisitely detailed notebook to Veronica, which outlined plans for his next job. If the widows can pull it off, their debt will be cleared.

All of that plot, while meaty, sounds somewhat traditional. Which is why McQueen, and co-writer Gillian Flynn, add in layers of complexity. The first layer is process. I’m obsessed with process in movies; I love being shown how things are actually done and what it would take to actually pull something off. If a group of amateurs are going to execute a multimillion-dollar heist, how would they get guns? How would they find out what a blueprint means, or how they can use a few risqué pictures to their advantage? How much does a million dollars weigh? Can you run with that weight on your back? How about two million?
These are the questions that interest McQueen, and he answers them in such a profoundly interesting way. We get to witness how a layperson would actually pull off a heist, as opposed to a bunch of experts who know what they’re doing and face little consequences as a result.

Emotion adds another layer of complexity to Widows. I can’t talk about this too openly, as it would ruin important elements of the film, but many characters in the movie have a hidden agenda, or an previous traumatic event that helps explain why they’re doing what they’re doing. Every performer in the film is incredible, but once you realize the full scope of what Veronica is going through (and what she’s already suffered), it allows us to fully appreciate the depth of Davis’ performance. Veronica is a crowning achievement for Viola Davis. It could be the best work she’s done.

Finally, there is a complex political backdrop to the film that makes Widows more than just a heist flick. Jamal is running for an alderman seat in a South Side district of Chicago that has been left vacant due to the failing health of the current alderman, Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall). Jamal’s main opponent: Tom’s politically motivated son, Jack (Colin Farrell). As we watch Jamal and Jack square off, Widows becomes a subtle but exacting examination of class and race in America.

For example, there is a single camera shot in the middle of Widows that will be remembered as one of the best Steve McQueen ever captured. The shot begins with Colin Farrell and his campaign manager (Molly Kunz) getting into a town car after Farrell has concluded a speech in a poor area of his district. Once Farrell gets into the car, the car pulls off and begins driving away. We then hear Farrell and Kunz engage in a revealing conversation. As they continue their back and forth, the camera stays put, mounted to the hood of the car, capturing a poor and forgotten area of the South Side of Chicago. This goes on for minutes.
At one point, the car turns onto a new street, and as it does this, the camera gently pans right, so it is now looking straight at the car, before continuing to move right and resting on the driver’s side of the car. We’re still only looking at the neighborhood, but now things have changed. In a few short minutes, traveling a few short blocks, we’ve seen the city change before our eyes. From broken and forgotten, to thriving and emerging. The car finally stops, and Farrell steps out at his lush campaign headquarters on the edge of his district.

I’ll admit, at first, I had no idea what McQueen was doing with this shot. Why aren’t we seeing the characters argue? Why is he showing us this? And when Farrell got out of the car at his destination, it all clicked for me: This is how cities are built, and how they are developed. Certain people live in this section, so the city looks one way; certain people live in that section, so the city looks another way. In one single shot, McQueen expertly communicates the infrastructural difference between the “haves” and “have nots,” without saying a word. I’m hard pressed to think of any other living filmmaker who would have the confidence to convey all this visually, especially while something seemingly more interesting (the conversation between the characters) is going on at the same time. This is the power of Steve McQueen’s camera. Bobby Sands and Father Moran aren’t just talking in Hunger; Brandon Sullivan isn’t just running in Shame; and Solomon Northup isn’t just hanging in 12 Years a Slave. Steve McQueen isn’t just concerned with what his characters are saying and doing, he’s concerned with how the world around them informs their actions.

To put it another way, I’ve just spent three long paragraphs describing the visual and emotional complexity of a single three-minute shot from a film. How many shots in modern movies elicit such a response? A

You May Also Like

11 comments:

  1. Right now, this film is #1 film of 2018 as I saw it this past Sunday and was in awe of what I saw. That scene of Jack and Siobhan in the car talking in one take is incredible. I also love the attention to detail about the heist as there's so many little things in that film that I loved. Viola Davis fucking killed it. That's a woman I would not want to fuck with.

    I also feel like it's a film where it's women being pushed around in a man's world and they have to do this heist to pay back the man whose money was stolen by their husbands. Yet, there is a lesson to all of this. Push a woman around too many time, she'll fucking kick you in the balls and then some to the point that he'll cry out for his mommy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm so glad you liked this movie as much as I did. I thought Davis (and they entire cast, really) absolutely killed it as well. I wish it was performing better in theaters, but I guess people are having trouble connecting to an arty heist film. Still, this will definitely be one of my favorites of the year.

      Delete
  2. I'm glad you brought up being confused at that shot at first because I was too. I immediately felt bad for the actress speaking because she was giving on hell of a monologue and none of it was on screen, but now I get what he was doing. it just took me a bit.

    I'm glad you loved this one too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, I was SO confused. But I love McQueen, so I knew there was some deeper meaning to what he was doing. And when it clicked for me, I was in complete awe. And I know right, poor Molly Kunz. But I'm sure McQueen told her about that shot from the beginning, and good on her for bringing her A-game, even though she wasn't on camera. I love that dedication.

      Delete
  3. Although I understand what you are saying in terms of visuals (I also really liked the car scene), I felt that the characters were underdeveloped and the ending, very rushed, compared to the rest of the movies, which was slow-built. The pros for me were the performances, especially Elizabeth Debicki. But overall, this Steve McQueen movie was a disappointment for me, compared to his previous work. Great review Alex!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks so much! I hear everything you're saying here, and I even shared that opinion somewhat after I saw it for the first time. But when I watched it again, I got a much better sense of the characters' motivations; what they were doing and why they were doing it. But some of the film is sparse, for sure. Thanks so much for your comment!

      Delete
  4. That shot annoyed me to no end. There was really no need to spent this much time on showing something the audience 'gets' without the necessatiy to show it. We get it. Some are rich and some are poor. What's worse is that Mcqueen is out there having the audacity to talk how this film is all #MeToo. That's just pathetic. He takes the focus from titular women for a lot of scenes and then he has the character of assistant who is either being hit on or humiliated by men and ONE scene she shines in we see the neighborhood instead of her. Very disappointed Flynn yet again pandered to a man, this time not a character but her co-writer.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I grew up and still live in the city of Chicago. We have the worst murder rates out of any city. The South Side is notorious for its crime ridden districts. Farrell's 34 murders in a month comment while the car driving through the poverty ridden 18th Ward says it all. So some people obviously still don't get it. What's pathetic is seeing people wanting to box Flynn and McQueen in as one dimensional 'let's only talk about feminism and leave all other social issues off the table' type writers. Flynn isn't 'pandering to a man'. She's showing that a story can have more complexity than a typical 'girl power!' narrative and that feminism and issues of class and race don't have to be mutually exclusive.

      Delete
    2. Sati: I'm bummed you didn't like the movie more, but I do hear what you're saying here. That was honestly the reaction I had after watching it for the first time, though to a less strong degree. I think McQueen is almost always chiefly concerned with the film as a whole, as opposed to individual performances, which is how he justifies an actress delivering a killer monologue off screen. But I get that choices like that aren't for everyone.

      Luke: I do agree that I don't think a lot of people "get" the harsh realities of modern day Chicago, and that McQueen captured that very well here. I do, however, tend to stay away from bashing other people's opinions. But I suppose we all have a different way of viewing art and responding to it.

      Delete
  5. Man, I LOVED this movie. Glad you dug it.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Before watching the movie yesterday, I came here to look at your rating. I sometimes do that without actually reading the review to get a general idea of what awaits for me. Along with the grade I read the final sentence... you mentioning a one three-minute scene that you talked about within three paragraphs.

    I knew right away when that car started driving and we weren't seeing the characters that this was the scene you meant. I figured, McQueen was showing us that the line between "us" and "them" is so thin, that a single conversation separates them. We just never have the correct conversations.

    Very nice review!

    ReplyDelete