the following is a review about film and a rant about people, and I’m only half-serious…rude, oblivious conduct in a movie theater makes me say the darnedest things
“It wasn’t what I expected.” That old adage is only one example of American stupidity. We don’t like surprises in cinema, outside of the comfort of our free living room, where peak TV can provoke and estrange to titillating effect because, well, the stakes are low, friend. After twenty bucks or more for most people, it’s a different equation. We claim we want to be surprised, we claim we want different, daring, original, diverse, even strange. We claim a lot of things. Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians may have proven moviegoers ready for more diversity, more “different,” in the right package that is…in comic-book escapism, in romantic fantasy, in convention. A steely heist picture set at the intersection of race, gender, and politics in rough-and-tumble Chicago, that city that never sleeps out of fear? No, girl. We don’t want no complexity in our rah-rah caper of the yah-yah sisterhood. We want pump-em-up shoot-em-ups where every sister has a happy ending and a happier pay-off. We want good guys and bad guys, not an eclectic group of real people, none of whom are innocent.
“It wasn’t what I expected.” “I didn’t get it.” “It was weird.” The calling cards of blockbuster folk, brand followers, the unpretentious. While my kind turn their noses at Venom and vapid comedy, their kind turn their noses at peculiar, “pretentious,” notions of importance or intelligence, that entertainment can be more than a passive excuse for buttery popcorn. They are the conglomerate. They are the unseeing eye of a country that elected a smarmy cunt to our highest office in the land. What does the reverend in Widows say? “Ignorance passes for excellence.” You may ask, why the long face? Why, dear elitist, are you so vain and so evil toward a difference of opinion? Easy. Widows, a modest failure in dollars due to said conglomerate, was ruined for me by five inches of smart light and a mother of two screaming toddlers. They are symptoms of modern American ignorance, defiance in the face of scorn. There are shushes and shut-ups bellowed, even commercials made for the express purpose of shaming them into silence, into acquiescence of the existence of other people in this world. These people do not relent. They don’t show, or they show and they ruin it for the rest of us. In turn, I was distracted, defeated, depleted by the relentless anticipation of more. More phone, more whine, more of the crying shame. Therefore, Widows will require second viewing, but for now it’s merely a glossy high of pulp entertainment, made almost great by the bravura camera of director Steve McQueen and the brave feminist leanings of writer Gillian Flynn.
They say a great film is three good scenes and no bad ones. While that’s not entirely true, Widows almost fits the bill. That first scene is an early show of power by Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), the sadistic brother and enforcer of one Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry), a local gang boss running for alderman in the South Side precinct. Seeking a debt from a brother ’round the corner, Jatemme and gang circle a man and his friend, and McQueen’s camera circles them in a one-minute, 360-degree take. They force ’em to beat box, show ’em the goods they walked in on, a little rap full of pretty good rhythm to boot. We know it’s coming and we can’t look away. It’s a nail-biter of great apprehension, and Kaluuya’s heavy-set gaze is terrifying. The next scene is a two-minute take mounted on the windshield of election rival Jack Mulligan’s Escalade as it drives from one side of town, the south side slums, to Jack’s own backyard, a well-manicured line of mansions. All the while, we hear Mulligan (Colin Farrell) mull on the neighbors and the neighborhood outside, ranting and raving on the foibles of a depressed community, the coiffed politician he reveals to the world belying his smallness. The last scene is a banger of a two-hander between Farrell and father Tom Mulligan, played by Robert Duvall. For all his smallness and subtle racism, Jack is still a better man than his outwardly bigoted father, a Trumpian magnate of old money and xenophobia. Their generational chasm is in sharp focus here, as Jack lays down the gauntlet, “I can’t wait till I don’t have to speak to people like you anymore, because…you won’t be around anymore.”
I’ve spoken about the men till now for one reason: in Widows they are the problem, the women are the solution. Nobody is innocent, ‘cept maybe Viola’s cute dog Olivia, however, the men are the crux of end-stage capitalism in Chicago, of class struggles and corrupt politics. For them everything is transactional. Money for power or money for sex, it don’t matter, as long as they get what they want. Every one of them is looking out for number one, even if they don’t like it, like Farrell’s Jack. He’s a corrupt politician and he knows it, he doesn’t enjoy it, maybe even regrets it. Regardless, he’s a cog in the problem. Liam Neeson, Jon Bernthal, and others take a job that goes bad, and the resulting fallout places everyone they know in a bad way. The women are responsible for the mess they start, for cleaning it up, for caring for their children, for quenching Manning’s thirst when he discovers all his money is gone in a blaze of fiery police brutality. Thus, they come together to plan a heist. There’s ringleader Viola, now-single mother Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), soft-spoken babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo), and jobless, perennially mistreated Alice (Elizabeth Debicki). Given Viola’s adamant statement that they’re done when it’s done, that they won’t ever see each other again, the implication is she ain’t no different from the cold, calculating transaction of her late husband. By the last shot, we know that ain’t true. She’s a woman. She’s a different animal. She’s better. This movie is better. Better than the sum of theater-going distractions, a twisty yarn of surprise and gritty circumstance that will have those ready to submit to it gasping for air.
The rich ensemble, anchored by Davis as Veronica Rawlings, is highlighted by Debicki’s fierce resolve, Farrell’s second-guessing cunning, and Erivo’s fast-running. Seriously, she’s Cruise-level runner here, not to mention the owner of two guns on each shoulder. She’s jacked and ready to screw over Jack Mulligan and family for all they’ve got, not for power, for her family. Debicki, a minor player in Guardians of the Galaxy and unmentionable indies, is a breakout star with the baddest arc. From clueless, battered housewife to cunning role player, she’s an astute performer and scene partner with the likes of Veronica and her former-whore mother, played by Jackie Weaver. Farrell’s at his best in years, perfecting what he started in Roman Israel Esq to shape a complex anti-villain, the bad guy we can’t help but embrace when he basically tells that horrible father of his to fuck off and die. Neeson makes the most of his limited screen time, although Bernthal is quite literally a cameo. Tyree Henry makes a wicked impression as well, toeing the line between gang-land menace and blue collar vibes. Michelle Rodriguez does not seize her opportunity here unfortunately, resorting to her typical bag of mean-mugs and mad-assery. She’s mad and she wants you to know it, I guess. Viola expands on her on-screen persona as a strong woman of volcanic emotions. She’s also fearful, doubtful, and in over her head, and despite it all, she’s a brave face for the other women to rally behind. She has to be.
This ain’t so much a heist picture or action thriller as it is a city drama with elements of both sprinkled throughout. Maybe that explains the poor box office, maybe it doesn’t. I could continue pointing fingers. At the eclectic and little-known cast, at the generic photography absent McQueen’s clear influences, at even the rare Hans Zimmer score to stand still, never standing out. There’s a steeliness to the feels, a Chicago flavor that prevents much in the way of a true connection to any of these characters. Or maybe it’s just that conglomerate of ignorance. The fools that insist on ruining everything for everyone with their phones and crying children. Because of them a potentially great movie was severely uninvolving in the midst of so many highlights, so much merit. And because of many more who weren’t there, Widows will likely serve as more proof to the studios that be that big-budget adult filmmaking is a lost cause better left to streaming. I enjoy my living room as much as the next guy, but no matter the fools or fickle masses, I will always champion the theater-going experience.