Widows (2018)

Directed by Steve McQueen

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Widows is a strange, good movie.  It’s a heist movie set in Chicago which tackles class divides, political corruption and the burden of the dead.  At times it is quite funny, quite dark, and the cast of engaging characters are well-defined but a little scattered.  They are well-constructed images, sounds and dialects but with something missing at the core, both thematically and in the way the movie is put together.  Because this is Steve McQueen, director of movies like ShameHunger and 12 Years a Slave he will and should get the benefit of the doubt, but were this an unknown or less successful director I think the movie would be regarded less favorably.

From a technical standpoint this movie is brilliant.  It’s exciting, creative, energetic and makes you feel all the things it wants you to feel in the moment.  There’s a stylistic flare from the start, such as shooting a car chase entirely from inside one vehicle in what (I think) is a long, unbroken shot, or in the scene in which the camera swirls almost romantically around one of the antagonists and his prey multiple times before the antagonist shoots the man dead.

When all is said and done, however, Widows asks you to feel a connection to the main character that I never felt and that I think others will have missed as well.  In some ways this might be in line with the character and themes the story plays with, but it’s a disconnect that I felt loomed too large for the apparent pathos the movie insists upon ending with.

The last line of the movie is a question posed softly to a person just beyond the camera.  Veronica (Viola Davis) asks, “how you been?” to a co-conspirator in the heist, Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), but when McQueen refuses to cut to the reverse shot, it instead feels like she is speaking directly to us, the audience.

It’s a moment that I think is meant to feel quite poignant, just as is often the case when a movie ends on such a somber, even open-ended final line or just with a close up on an actor’s face.  I’m thinking too of Tommy Lee Jones’ “…and then I woke up” at the end of No Country for Old Men or the final close up of Lady Gaga in A Star is Born.

The classic Hollywood ending is from afar.  The camera, in a wide shot, holds static or cranes up and away as the heroes walk into the sunset or just down the street.  We’re meant to absorb the characters within the context of a bigger world, signaling that our time with them is done and that they fit somewhere into the broader picture.  Without reducing the significance of their story, it’s a technique designed to close the book on their story and tell us to look away.

An ending like this one, or the others I’ve mentioned, demands that we keep looking.  The camera is close to the performer, finding in his or her face a vast landscape of emotion, and it seems to me a reminder that this story isn’t really over.  It is instead some kind of call to action or call to observation, to keep these principles and themes in mind when returning out into the world.

You see such endings too in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Scorsese’s Goodfellas (though from a bit further back) and a number of other films I can’t currently recall.  It seems to me that more films have adopted such an approach, to end in a medium or close up shot than in the wide, to keep us immersed right there in the story until an often abrupt or even unsentimental cut to black.

And I love these kinds of endings, but they only really work if we’re invested in the characters, and I didn’t feel quite that way about Widows.

As a heist movie this one is gripping and entertaining.  We’re certainly rooting for the heroes, and the villains are made quite despicable and frightening so that we adequately fear and loathe them.  All the chess pieces are set, and the final heist, even with the characters’ missteps, is tense and thrilling.

Basically, as a genre movie Widows is wonderful.

The focus on class and politics elevates this movie above other genre pictures, but I think it’s the observation of those issues and systems that makes this movie unique rather than what it actually has to say about them.  All I took away was that there is political corruption and a big economic disparity between people, often race-based, who live not far apart.  It’s the scene setting of something like The Wire, and it’s effectively done (particularly in one unbroken take that brings us from a low income area to one politician’s glamorous house only a few minutes away).

The politicians, who are unsurprisingly connected to the robberies, are Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and the upstart challenger Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry).  When we first meet them it’s Mulligan who seems to be the antagonist.  He exits his chauffeured car in a poverty-stricken area to meet with Manning at his campaign headquarters, run out of an abandoned church.  Manning is joined by his enforcer brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) as they discuss the upcoming election and possible concessions.

Pretty soon, however, our expectations are turned upside down when it’s Jamal who intimidates Veronica into paying him the money he’s owed from Veronica’s criminal husband, Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), now deceased.  Such a dynamic doesn’t make us root for Mulligan, but it does make us weary of both sides of the political coin.

Their election and upcoming debate has nothing whatsoever to do with politics and instead everything to do with power and control.  It might as well be a medieval kingdom with slightly better manners, slightly.

And maybe I’m looking too much into all of this because thinking of this as some version of Game of Thrones makes me regard the story as a whole much more fondly.  Widows dabbles in real world corruption but only enough to heighten the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad.’  When the movie ended it seemed to me that this was akin to the first season of House of Cards, a commentary on the real world but which such absurd stakes that it could only be taken as metaphorical.

Widows is an entertaining movie with twists and turns in line with other Gillian Flynn works (the Gone Girl writer co-wrote this movie), and those turns work, I’d argue, in the ways such melodrama works in a wrestling ring.  We know the story mechanizations have made us loathe one character or another, and so when they get what’s coming it’s a rousing moment.  But all that work strips away some of the emotional core in favor of sensationalism, and the ending then feels removed from a different movie entirely.

Up Next: The Grifters (1990), Ben Is Back (2018), Doubt (2008)

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