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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.

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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.

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Non-Review Review: A Simple Favour

At one point around the two-thirds mark of the film, an insurance claims investigator offers a recap of all the twists and turns of A Simple Favour to that point. “It’s bananas!” she observes.

She’s not wrong. A Simple Favour is modern film noir with a pitch black sense of humour, populated with two femme fatales and driven with an infectious enthusiasm. It is not a parody or a deconstruction of the genre, but instead a demented celebration. This is a film that revels in the tropes and the conventions of these sorts of layoured labyrinthine narratives, processing all the sharp turns and wacky reveals with an eager (and effectively disconcerting) smile on its face.

Picture perfect.

A Simple Favour often feels like an extended homage to the work of Gillian Flynn, filtered through the lens of Paul Feig. This combination works very well, going down like the kind of martini served in a freezing glass with ice-cold gin. Both Flynn and Feig share an acerbic sense of humour, and tendency to pick at the gender roles usually assigned by society. A Simple Favour might share some of its DNA with Gone Girl or Sharp Objects, but it also feels like the vicious and biting younger sibling of Bridesmaids or Spy.

A Simple Favour does suffer a little bit from the comparisons to Flynn’s work, and occasionally veers slightly too far into broad comedy, but it is powered by a sophisticated charm threaded with a pitch black sense of humour.

Red flags.

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My 12 for ’14: Gone Girl and the most $£@!ed up people…

With 2014 coming to a close, we’re counting down our top twelve films of the year. Check back daily for the latest featured film.

Gone Girl is a surprisingly playful film.

David Fincher is a director who likes to play with his audience, constructing elaborate and stylish labyrinths that might trap the audience as easily as they trap his characters. Gone Girl plays to Fincher’s strengths, as Gillian Flynn adapts her best-selling novel into a pulpy thriller. The news that Fincher and Flynn would collaborate on HBO’s Utopia is fantastic, giving television viewers something to anticipate; one hopes that the collaboration might be as fruitful as that enjoyed by Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Joji Fukunaga on True Detective this year.

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Gone Girl is a story about stories. Most particularly, it is the story of two people fighting to control their own narratives; to try to steer the stories being told around them. Is Nick Dunne a loving husband desperately searching for his missing wife? Or is Nick Dunne a sociopath desperately trying to cover-up her murder? Is Amy Dunne an innocent victim who has worked her way into the heart of the American public? Or is Amy Dunne a manipulative and ruthless (and ruthless) cynic who has helped to turn her marriage into a perpetual struggle?

Gone Girl is a very sleek and stylish film that is lovingly crafted and wryly self-aware. It is a horror story about a dysfunctional marriage, a tale about media fascination and a black comedy about resentment and revenge. More than that, it is a puzzle that competes against the audience, a story that seems to change form at any point where the viewer might finally have come to grips with what they are watching.

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Note: This “best of” entry includes spoilers for Gone Girl. You should probably go and see the movie, because everybody is talking about it. Don’t worry, we’ll wait for you. Still there? Good. Let’s continue. Continue reading