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My 12 for ’18: “Widows” & Pulp Artistry

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number seven.

Widows is unashamedly pulp fiction.

There is no way around it. It is a heist thriller in which a bunch of women who have never even held guns before use a notebook provided by one of their dead husbands in order to conduct a daring robbery. There are secrets, there are betrayals, there are reversals. There is violence, there is brutality. It is a very effective example of form, an illustration of the kind of pulpy “movie for adults” that simply does not exist any more.

Widows of opportunity.

However, there is something interesting bubbling beneath the surface of Widows. Written by Gillian Flynn and directed by Steve McQueen, Widows is a film that has a lot on its mind. It finds room to meditate on modern Chicago, on white anxiety about shifting demographics, about power and influence. More than that, it also explores questions of complicity and consent, the manner in which people choose to blind themselves to what they simply do not wish to see.

Widows does all of this without sacrificing any of the beats and rhythms of a pulpy crime thriller. It is a deft balancing act, and one that Flynn and McQueen pull off perfectly.

Much has been made of the box office failure of Widows, a film that got great reviews and reasonably good release push that failed to land for audiences. It was one of a couple of films released late in the year that suffered the same fate; Bad Times at the El Royale and First Man. Indeed, there is some debate about whether there is room for these sorts of films on the modern cinematic release calendar. A Star is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody both demonstrated that prestige awards fare could win over audiences, but they represent a slightly different breed of film.

Widows is obviously based upon a popular British miniseries from the eighties, albeit one that would be unfamiliar to most American viewers. It lacks the nostalgic impact of the premise of A Star is Born or the Queen soundtrack rocking Bohemian Rhapsody. If anything, the film resembles the sort of pulpy crime movies that flooded the cinematic market in the nineties, usually adapted from the sorts of paperbacks sold at airport book stores; think Primal Fear or Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead.

Widows has an admittedly ridiculous premise; a bunch of people who have never committed a serious crime in their lives find themselves attempting to pull of a daring high-stakes robbery plotted by a dead man. The film luxuriates in the fish-out-of-water element of all of this, wives and girlfriends who have been largely sheltered from their husbands’ criminal activities forced to wade into very dangerous water. It is an engaging premise that could be approached from any number of angles.

However, Widows works in large part because McQueen and Flynn understand exactly how when to play the premise straight and when to have fun with it. Widows works as a good old-fashioned thriller populated with surreal moments like Alice buying a getaway van at a police auction only to realise that he doesn’t have a driver’s license, but also with beats that dance on the edge of a very sharp blade. Daniel Kaluuya is mesmerising as Jatemme Manning, and the film luxuriates in scenes that allow Jatemme to demonstrate his brutal inclinations.

Much has been made of the “elevation” of pulp art in the past year, most often in discussions of horror movies like Hereditary, the idea that movies need to strip out any sense of playfulness or fun in order to be deemed “worthy” of serious discussion. There is perhaps an element of truth to this accusation, a sense in which many of the most successful awards films of recent years have stripped out the more unconventional elements associated with the genre in order to be deemed worthy of awards season consideration.

Arrival might be the best example of this in recent memory. Arrival is a science-fiction film that involves no small amount of time travel. The movie hinges on the distortion of human perception of time, and the climax relies on an application of the classic “bootstrap paradox.” However, the film was very consciously designed to downplay these elements, to avoid tackling any of the big ideas or implications of its premise. Instead, the film played up its status as an earnest family drama about profound tragedy, allowing it to be seen as more “worthy” or “credible.”

What makes Widows so interesting is that it refuses this compromise. It is a film that steadfastly refuses to choose between being a pulpy thriller or being a piece of biting social commentary. Flynn is an expert of this sort of approach, as demonstrated by the success for work like Gone Girl or Sharp Objects. Similarly, McQueen’s filmography is heavily influenced by exploitation cinema, most notably in films like 12 Years a Slave or Shame. These are two artists you can get the balance right.

The result is impressive. Widows is by turns exhilarating and insightful, wry and thrilling, pointed and pulpy. Widows is a movie that can juxtapose the revelation that a character faked their death with an impressive single-take shot that moves through Chicago from the deprived neighbourhoods to the upscale suburbs. The basic premise of the film is ridiculous, but its themes are timely. As with almost any film about crime, Widows is a tale of self-interest and power, which allows Flynn and McQueen to integrate that story into a much broader reflection of contemporary culture.

At its core, Widows is a tale of self-preservation and attempts to escape the traps that have been set. It is a story about complicity and violence, and about wilful ignorance. Widows is a story about characters who will do whatever it takes to get a clean start and escape from the dreary world around them; whether listening to books on tape about civil rights leaders, pretending not to know how loved ones fund their lifestyles, pushing from organised crime into the even more highly organised criminality of contemporary politics.

Widows takes the template of what could easily be a disposable and average thriller. It then applies an incredible level of artistry to every single part of production. The direction is amazing. The cast is fantastic. The script is clever. The cinematography is crisp. Widows is a solid story, told phenomenally. It is an astounding piece of work.


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