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Non-Review Review: Widows (2018)

At its most basic, Widows is a testament to applying the skill and craft of two filmmakers working at the very top of their game to a sturdy and reliable genre framework.

The basic plot of Widows is relatively straightforward, adapted from Lynda LaPlante’s book by way of a very successful British television miniseries. A group of women find themselves drawn into an unlikely life of crime when their husbands are killed during a botched robbery. Caught between corrupt politicians and scheming gangsters, the women are thrown out of their comfort zone as their leader commits to completing a heist that was carefully and meticulously planned by her late husband. It’s pulpy, it’s trashy, it’s fun.

Widows of opportunity.

However, the beauty of Widows lies in applying the skill of Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen to this set-up. Flynn is one of the biggest writers working today, known for both her novels and for her work on screenplays. Gone Girl was enough of a cultural force to turn its title into a verb, and embodied a certain kind of sleek self-aware trashy storytelling style. McQueen is a great writer in his own right, but already one of the most esteemed and respected directors working in contemporary cinema; known for his work on Shame or Twelve Years a Slave.

Widows is a movie that is completely unashamed of the trappings of its story, a familiar story about unlikely criminals who find themselves forced into “one last job”, with the biggest irony being that it is somebody else’s last job. Widows never looks down upon the heightened aspects of its narrative, nor does it feel a need to elevate or legitimise them. Instead, Widows allows its intelligence and insight to fold into the contours of this slick stylish crime thriller. The result is simply dazzling.

Stealy resolve.

Of course, both Flynn and McQueen are storytellers who are very much engaged with contemporary culture, albeit through the lens of genre. This is most obvious in the work of Gillian Flynn, with her stories often evoking an arch postmodern self-aware take on film noir. However, it is just as true of McQueen. The pulpier aspects of Twelve Years a Slave were arguably obscured in contrast to the grand grotesquery of Django Unchained, but there is a solid argument to be made that the film owes as much to exploitation cinema as it does to prestige filmmaking.

However, both Flynn and McQueen are storytellers with an eye on the larger world. Gone Girl and Sharp Objects undoubtedly unfold within traditional genre frameworks, evoking old-fashioned serial killer narratives. However, they also grapple with questions of gender in modern society, with preconceptions about women and with depictions of stark feminine violence. Similarly, McQueen’s films obviously have deep political relevance. Hunger is a hugely controversial depiction of an important moment in Northern Irish history.

Heated discussions.

With all of that in mind, it was impossible that Widows was ever going to be an apolitical piece of work that existed within a vacuum quite apart from the outside world. Even the most basic act of this adaptation, transposing the story from the United Kingdom to the United States, is weighted. Flynn and McQueen shift the story from London to Chicago. Setting a contemporary crime story in Chicago is evocative, given the city’s place in contemporary American imagination.

While not the state capital, Chicago is the largest city in Illinois. That has important connections to Barack Obama, the first African American President of the United States. Obama worked as a community organiser in Chicago, taught at University of Chicago Law School, and eventually served as Senator from Illinois. He has a deep association with the city. Rahm Emanuel, who served as Obama’s Chief of Staff, later served as Mayor of Chicago. During one brief-but-essential flashback in Chicago, a key scene plays out ironically against those iconic Obama “hope” posters.

Secrets will be unearthed.

At the same time, Chicago is a city of extremes. In contemporary popular imagination, Chicago is defined by the rhetoric of the extreme right wing who treat it as something akin to a failed state, similar to anxieties about Detroit during the eighties. These attacks upon the city are often coded in racial terms. More than that, they have been advanced by none other than Donald Trump himself, the President of the United States elected after Barack Obama and defined largely in extreme opposition to him. As such, the use of Chicago as a setting in Widows is quite loaded.

Widows implicitly understands this. It is a film that very consciously unfolds during the Trump era, but without any nostalgia for the Obama era. Indeed, one key sequence suggests that the city was just as violent and brutal in the lead up to (and perhaps aftermath of) Obama’s election as it is at this moment in time. All that has changed is that popular culture is more willing to acknowledge and discuss that level of violence. Things are terrible for certain people on the margins of Chicago, the film suggests. However, it also suggests that things were always bad.

Period of reflection.

Perhaps the film’s most overt acknowledgements of the modern political climate come through the father-son characters of Tom and Jack Mulligan. Tom is a political institution, introduced pining nostalgically for the era when “face” and “book” were two different words. Tom is wary of the idea of power flowing away from his political dynasty. During one heated exchange, he warns Jack, “We made this city. We can’t have it taken away from us by people who come here illegally or people who can’t stop making babies.”

This election is presented as a dying gasp for white supremacy, in crude and simplistic terms. Tom and Jack worry about shifting demographics, just as real-world white supremacist voters are anxious about the erosion of a white majority. More slyly and more subtly, and very much in the manner that Quentin Tarantino approached the issue in The Hateful Eight, the film tethers this racism to a broader masculine anxiety about sexual identity. “Have you ever dated a black guy?” Tom asks his aide. “You’re worried about whether his dick is bigger than yours?” she replies.

Pulling a Mulligan.

There is a lot to be written about the specific political commentary contained within Widows, particularly as it pertains to contemporary American anxieties. Flynn and McQueen cleverly avoid specifics and nod towards broader themes; corruption, indifference, apathy. While specific events might be seen to mirror the chaos unfolding in the real world – particularly the impact of a late reveal on the outcome of the race – there is a sense in which Flynn and McQueen have constructed Widows as a parable about contemporary American society.

Widows is about power, about ignorance, about complicity. There is a question of denial and deniability, about the way in which people tell themselves the truths that they need to believe and in which they refuse to confront the uncomfortable truths that might challenge their assumptions about the way in which the world works. The characters in Widows generally exist in a place of complacency, unable or unwilling to acknowledge simple truths. “Ignorance is the new excellence,” a preacher argues at one point in the film, and Widows seems to believe it.

Et Viola.

The plot of Widows is spurred by a confrontation between widow Veronica Rawlins and local gangster (and aspiring politician) Jamal Manning. Manning reveals that Rawlins’ late husband stole two million dollars from him, and he expects Rawlins to make right. Rawlins claims to have been in the dark about her husband’s career, a representative of the teacher’s union living in a lavish penthouse. “Did you really not know, I wonder?” Manning muses. “Or did you just choose not to know?” The film very clearly suggests that it is the latter.

Widows takes the stark rugged self-involved individualism of the crime genre and applies it as a central political thesis. As Manning points out, Rawlins could easily pay her husband’s debts if she liquidated all of his assets, accepting that they were tainted by actions to which she claimed to be blind. Similarly, as other characters repeatedly point out, Rawlins could save herself a lot of trouble by surrendering the plans that her husband left behind. However, Rawlins consciously chooses not to do that.

Dogged inquiry.

Instead, Rawlins chooses to steal millions of dollars. In fact, she chooses to steal millions of dollars more than she needs, coming out of the whole situation with a significant profit if she can pull it off. Widows never judges Rawlins for this self-interest. In fact, it is made clear that she is stealing money from somebody else who has also stolen it. However, it is is also stressed that the money that she is stealing has (albeit indirectly) come from public trust. Even an act of charity towards the end of the film is framed in terms of ego.

Widows presents its characters as very self-interested and self-focused. Over the course of the film, each of the relationships between the husbands and wives are revealed to be toxic; Carlos has been stealing from Linda to pay his gambling debts, Florek beats Alice whenever she asks about his work. Even Jack Rawlins kept secrets from Veronica Rawlins. This self-interest is articulated by a late-film betrayal from a trusted character. “I couldn’t save us, so I had to save myself,” they offer by way of justification.

Holding a candle.

To be clear, this self-interest is a necessary survival instinct. Perhaps the most selfless character in Widows ends up beaten to death in his own front room for his trouble. However, this self-interest serves to isolate people and insulate them from one another. When a mysterious business man desires to treat a sexual relationship as a transaction with Alice, he explains that he hopes to avoid unnecessary entanglement and complication. “You want all of the good stuff and none of the bad?” Alice asks. “Don’t you?” he replies. It makes sense, but it is numbing and corrosive.

Widows tempers its pointed social commentary with a delightfully dark sense of humour. Veronica takes to organising the heist with incredible commitment, placing Alice in charge of procuring firearms. “Guns?” Alice replies. “Where am I supposed to get guns?” Veronica dryly replies, “This is America.” Similarly, Alice tries to procure her weapons from a helpful local enthusiast. When that enthusiast asks why Alice wants three guns, Alice replies, “I want one for every room.” This is apparently convincing logic.

Putting the matter to bed.

However, even ignoring the skill with which McQueen and Flynn weave their commentary into the narrative, Widows impresses as an immaculately constructed piece of filmmaking. It is ruthlessly efficient. The film hits all of the key beats expected of a crime thriller like this, but with impressive technical skill. The script is tight. The cast is great. The direction is top notch. Even if Widows were to be reduced to nothing more than a piece of cinematic craftsmanship, it would be phenomenal.

This is obvious in a number of ways, most clearly in how cleverly the film establishes its characters and dynamics. The white characters are defined by parental relationships; Jack inheriting an empire from his more openly racist father, Alice wrestling with the trauma of being raised by an abusive and self-interested mother. There is a sense that these cycles of violence perpetuate across generations, that Tom is as screwed up as he is because of his father and that Alice’s mother left some very deep wounds. (At one point, Veronica is suggested as a maternal substitute for Alice.)

A grave threat.

Even seemingly minor and background characters are intensely developed and expanded. Part of this is simply a matter of a casting; Matt Walsh pops up in a small role for a single scene, Jackie Weaver plays Alice’s abusive mother in a handful of sequences, and Carrie Coon plays a role so minor that she doesn’t pop up in the headline cast. There is a sense in which McQueen has populated the film with such a talented and competent cast that these actors are able to suggest so much with such efficiency, to give a sense that the world of the film has been lived in.

However, this is to underplay the craft involved in Flynn and McQueen’s script. To pick an arbitrary example, the film does an excellent job developing the character of Jatemme Manning. In a lesser film, Manning would be nothing but muscle; the brother and enforcer of Jamal Manning. However, Widows does enough with the character that he seems fully formed. A large part of that is simply giving the character space; Jatemme gets two expanded and effective scenes that serve to establish who he is and what he does. A large part of that is also casting Daniel Kaluuya.

Bowled over.

Still, there is an incredible attention to detail in fleshing Jatemme out from a simple archetype. Jatemme is repeatedly featured reading books or listening to audio books. He is learning about Malcolm X’s time in prison, or even trying to learn a foreign language. All of these suggest a yearning to escape this life in which he has found himself, perhaps mirroring his brother’s efforts to transition into politics. Even the foreign language tape is teaching Jatemme how to ask for two tickets, suggesting movement. Ironically, Jatemme cannot acknowledge this desire, let alone act on it.

Indeed, movement itself becomes something of a recurring preoccupation for the film. A significant amount of political tension derives from plans to build infrastructure to get inhabitants of the local ward out of these surroundings. Jamal Manning points out the irony that Tom Mulligan owns property in the district, but does not actually live there. Mulligan’s electoral chances are severely undermined by gerrymandering, redrawing of boundaries that serve to underscore both his own status as an outsider and how fixed the inhabitants are.

A dirty job.

All of this is very cleverly put together. McQueen’s direction is very effective. Widows looks fantastic. It sounds fantastic too. Special mention must be made of the film’s sound design, which is powerful, particularly during the juxtapositions in the opening scenes. More than that, though, Widows is the work of a director who knows exactly what he is doing. An early long take with Jatemme is incredibly unsettling, holding the audience’s gaze on an act of brutality. Another clever shot takes the audience from the slums to the suburbs in a single take.

Widows is a piece of genre fiction put together with great skill by two of the best voices working in contemporary popular culture. It is a great example of how the right voices with the right skills can make even the oldest and most familiar story seem new again.

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