Film

Steal Magnolias

Steve McQueen, Widows, 2018, 35 mm, color, sound, 129 minutes.

IN 2015, the blockbuster novelist Gillian Flynn’s second book, Dark Places—a typically macabre, perspective-shuffling tale of homicide and fucked-up family dynamics straight from an economically blighted American heartland—was turned into a blandly imagined Charlize Theron vehicle by the French director Gilles Paquet-Brenner. Aside from that misfire (for which Flynn received only “based on the novel by” credit), Flynn’s endeavors into movies and television have produced a string of starry, auteur-caliber collaborations. Her marriage-woes dissection Gone Girl found an ideal interrogator in David Fincher, whose ruthless efficiency lent astonishing speed to the pair’s 2014 adaptation, for which Flynn wrote the script; the movie feels like an Alfred Hitchcock thriller edited at the breathless pace of The Social Network’s (2010) opening credits. Earlier this year, a miniseries version of Flynn’s first novel, Sharp Objects, landed to considerable acclaim on HBO courtesy of Jean-Marc Vallée, the Canadian director who also received laurels at that network for his steering of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies into award-winning television. Vallée’s fluid, editing-heavy style matches naturally with Flynn’s emphasis on flashbacks and long-buried traumas; over the eight episodes of Sharp Objects, the vivid memories of the alcoholic journalist Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) stream in and out at a consistent clip, much like they do in Vallée’s Cheryl Strayed adaptation, Wild (2014).

Flynn’s latest, Widows, teams her with another name-brand director: Steve McQueen, the Turner Prize–winning artist whose previous screen project, 12 Years a Slave (2013)—based on the 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup—garnered the Best Picture Oscar. For both Flynn and McQueen, Widows marks a departure: Flynn’s source material here is, for the first time, not one of her own books, but rather a same-named, Lynda La Plante–authored British TV series from the 1980s. For McQueen, who shares screenplay credit with Flynn, Widows—a studio-backed heist thriller with a cast of endless celebrities—surfaces as the first movie he’s ever made that promises something like fun. McQueen is the kind of director who will dream up a movie about a sex addict and then literally call it Shame (2011). His debut feature—the searing, still-impressive Hunger (2008)—takes place in a Northern Ireland prison and details assorted atrocities: politically motivated beatings, feces on the wall, urine in the hallway. McQueen, like Fincher, is attracted to horrible things, and so his aligning with Flynn makes sense. In Shame, McQueen and cowriter Abi Morgan hint at an incestual past between their tortured protagonist (Michael Fassbender) and his wayward sister (Carey Mulligan); in Gone Girl, Margo Dunne makes penis jokes to her twin-brother-bestie Nick (“in high school, there were always rumors that we secretly screwed,” reads a sibling-centered aside in a section from Nick’s POV.). McQueen and Flynn working together is less serious artist-meets-popular novelist, as a trailer might lead you to believe, than it is simply two morbid minds pooling forces.   

Widows, which transfers La Plante’s London-set original to present-day Chicago, opens with a ferocious melding of love and death. In an overhead shot of bodies on a rumpled bedspread—the same perspective of Shame’s inaugural image—Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis) and her husband, Harry (Liam Neeson), exchange a passionate kiss. McQueen and his editor, Joe Walker, toggle between their warm embrace and footage of the recent robbery-gone-wrong that has left Harry and the three other members of his crew dead. (The shocking slap of the first gunshot sound approximates the decibel levels of a Christopher Nolan movie.) The subsequent scenes between Veronica and Harry thus take on a melancholic air: In one, Veronica stares longingly out a window, imagining Harry hug her from behind, as she listens to Nina Simone’s “Wild Is the Wind.” It is slyly amusing to watch Neeson enact this kind of role reversal. He is so often the aggrieved hero, wracked with memories of a loved one; in The Grey (2011), he too nurses his grief with beatific marital visions of long days spent in bed, all plush pillows and crisp sheets. But in Widows, Veronica can only afford so much time for her emotional agony: Not long after Harry’s well-attended funeral, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) materializes at her gleaming penthouse, demanding the $2 million that went missing amid Harry’s botched final job.

Steve McQueen, Widows, 2018, 35 mm, color, sound, 129 minutes.

Harry, by all accounts a diligent man, had prepared before death for such a scenario. Bash (Garret Dillahunt), the Rawlins’ Chicago Bears–besotted driver, reveals to Veronica a note that Harry left behind; it leads her to a safe-deposit box containing Harry’s notebooks from a career in crime: sketches, contacts, blueprints. Veronica decides to seek out the widows of the men who died alongside Harry and enlist them as potential accomplices in a $5 million heist plan, outlined in the notes, that Harry had yet to attempt. Each of these women finds themselves in a state of sorrow and also overnight financial panic: Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), whose late husband (Jon Bernthal) was an abusive partner, has no work experience, and is encouraged by her overbearing mother (Jacki Weaver) into escorting; Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) is on the verge of losing her clothing store, on top of dealing with unsympathetic in-laws; Amanda (Carrie Coon, who played Margo in Gone Girl) is an overburdened mom wary of Veronica’s robbery idea. Veronica frequently cradles an adorable white dog in her interactions with these women (Ann Mitchell’s Dolly Rawlins, in the original, had a similar pet), but she maintains an unmistakably no-nonsense demeanor. She does not want to be friends with these women, to bond over their wounds; she wants money, and she wants to not get killed.

Veronica’s scheme centers the overall narrative of Widows, but there are about a dozen other branches of plot happening around her. Jamal hungers after that money from the Harry job not merely to finance his criminal operations but to bankroll his campaign for office: He is running for alderman in the 18th Ward against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the scion of a local political dynasty whose figurehead, Jack’s father Tom (Robert Duvall), has aged into a craggy bigot. Flynn, who was born in Kansas City, Missouri, but now lives in Chicago, has always imbued her work with political dimensions, largely regarding economic despair; with Widows, she maneuvers engagingly into policy discussions, race relations, and the contemporary political machine. It is a pleasure to watch Farrell (clean-shaven after a couple of Yorgos Lanthimos escapades) and Henry seated on opposite sides of a desk, batting around barbs about nepotism and leverage in a room festooned with campaign posters. (McQueen is well-versed in across-the-table political talk: The centerpiece sequence of Hunger, an otherwise dialogue-light work, is a twenty-minute-plus, smoke-filled conversation between Fassbender’s striking prisoner Bobby Sands and Liam Cunningham’s Father Dominic Moran.) The scenes of Jack getting into and out of cars after a speech; of Jamal discussing the possibility of an endorsement with an influential reverend (Jon Michael Hill); and of Tom raging against the notion of the Mulligans losing power at times suggest McQueen’s attempt at a three-course-meal portrait of The System, in the vein of Sidney Lumet’s Power (1986) or John Sayles’s City of Hope (1991).

Steve McQueen, Widows, 2018, 35 mm, color, sound, 129 minutes.

Thankfully, Flynn—even as she delights in the dick-measuring political jostling—hasn’t discarded her insights into domestic disquietude or the hard business of being a mother. (She also hasn’t forgotten the potential for a mid-movie twist to make an audience gasp.) Coon, as Amanda, is usually hoisting a baby over one shoulder. A scene between Debicki and Weaver, in which a mom asserts control over her daughter’s body in the guise of maternal concern, summons the chills that animated the Amy Adams–Patricia Clarkson Sharp Objects relationship. One of the Mulligans’ signature policy initiatives, Minority Women Owned Work (MWOW), unfurls yet additional avenues of story, including those involving a salon owner (Adepero Oduye) and one of her employees, Belle (Cynthia Erivo). A single mom, Belle adeptly manages multiple jobs to keep ahead of the bills; at one point, with a nighttime babysitting gig on the line, she runs to catch a bus, and McQueen and DP Sean Bobbitt follow every step of her sprint. (The “CitySitters” assignment turns out to be for Linda, which sets into motion Belle’s initiation into the climactic heist.) In the flashbacks, Flynn also devises a relationship totem (a flask) for Veronica and Harry, not unlike the code words and gestures she lent to the couple in Gone Girl.

It is in the appearances of Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), Jamal’s brother with violent inclinations, that McQueen most closely approaches the bodily brutality of his previous features. And the tableaux of Davis’s Veronica at home, stifling her sadness in the company of floor-to-ceiling windows and gorgeous views of Chicago, resemble the chic metropolitan loneliness of the New York City–set Shame. But it’s encouraging that McQueen, whose movies at their weakest veer into the ostentatious, has basically accepted this project on the terms of genre. Aside from a couple of dramatic reveals and one impressive long-take driving shot that illustrates the city’s socioeconomic divisions—if Thom Andersen ever makes a Chicago Plays Itself, he’ll consult this moment—McQueen seems to be applying a lighter hand and even enjoying himself. This, of course, doesn’t mean that he can’t also capably, even angrily, address the issues of the day. A well-rounded entertainment with some points to make along the way, Widows constitutes a frustratingly rare multiplex prospect: a good-time movie from a feel-bad director.

Widows opens in US theaters on November 16.

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