Skip to main content

If this whole thing goes wrong, I want my kids to know that I just didn't sit there and take it. I did something.

Widows
(2018)

(SPOILERS) Widows might have made a decent comedy. It’s certainly the only way its premise and ensuing plot wouldn’t have seemed ludicrous. Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Lynda LaPlante's 1980s TV series (tellingly, he'd have been thirteen when it was first broadcast, a great leveller of an age in terms of accepting daft ideas at face value - see my love for Dempsey and Makepeace) has been mystifyingly venerated by critics, apparently wont to leave their faculties at the door when it comes to an art house director brandishing content easily clutched to bosoms if it has even a whiff of political acuteness.


McQueen and Gillian Flynn (Sharp Objects, Gone Girl, so no stranger to absurd twists herself) adapted LaPlante's work, but the basics remain in place; the wives of a gang of robbers, none of them remotely experienced in criminal ways aside from spending their husbands' loot, decide to pull a heist when their spouses die in a job gone wrong. They have a month to pay back a crime boss, so really have to hone their lack of skills in that time. 


So yeah, if this was a comedy caper with most probably Melissa McCarthy, it might score some yuks, including an amusing shooting range montage and wacky scrapes as the gals attempt to gather the necessary info and equipment (actually, there almost is the latter, courtesy of Elizabeth Debicki). Or perhaps even if this was the kind of swish, heightened, glossy affair of Ocean's 8 – although, at least there everyone has some degree of experience in criminal endeavours – there'd be a free pass for style over substance. But McQueen's worst crime is taking it all very seriously. 


Reviewers have mentioned Widows in the same breath as Heat and the director calls it "political pop" – as well as, in a sign of rampant self-delusion, professing "I don’t want to call it a heist movie as I don't even know what that means" – setting it in 2008 Chicago, a milieu of rising murder rates and the sparring political ambitions of resident Irish American and up-and-coming African American fraternities. With its female leads, there have been inevitable references to the picture's #MeToo cred ("“It’s a #MeToo revenge story with a Black Lives Matter backbone" claimed IndieWire, risibly; slap that one on the DVD case, if you dare), as if any form of cultural cachet is immediately a sign of quality. Really, though, with material this half-baked, attaching a boast of relevance can't help but look extremely cynical (or perhaps it's the opposite: tragically naïve).


The political/organised crime element works relatively well, mostly because it isn't outright silly. It's dramatically coherent in a way the main body simply isn't, but that also means it really has very little business being there; it feels like it has been stapled on to "sisters do crimes" in an attempt to make the whole more credible. Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall do sterling work as motivationally at-odds generations of the Mulligan clan. 


The tentative political ambitions of crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), keen to get in on a scene that will open crucial doors in terms of business and perceived legitimacy, also has potential, but too often this side falls prey to the crude, short-hand antics of his enforcer brother (Daniel Kaluuya, evidently eager to show he can play nasty), the movie's equivalent of shouting "THIS IS SERIOUS!" in your ear, with a trail of bullet holes, stabbings and blown out brains in its wake.


The wives – Viola Davis surviving Liam Neeson, Michelle Rodriguez evidently best shot of gambler Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Elizabeth Debicki turning to high class call girl after wife beater hubby Jon Bernthal (typecast as a baddie again) is shot and blown to bits; Carrie Coon's Amanda loses Coburn Goss, but wants to keep out of it, although as we see this isn't just motivated by wanting to steer clear of trouble – are well performed to a fault, but also a collection of broad stroke clichés. Davis all steely and resolved but vulnerable within, Debicki battered and frail but showing her resolve beneath, Rodriguez does Rodriguez. 


Only Cynthia Erivo, underwritten to her benefit as a babysitter/beautician who gets inveigled as their driver, remotely seems like she has the smarts and capability of pulling off the job, and yet she isn't even called upon to set foot in the house. Somehow Davis succeeds, despite a fatality (it's alright, he’s a nasty old bastid) and a casualty (it's alright, just a flesh wound). And after all that, she strips down to a vest, to show she meant business, and puts a bullet in hubby, who faked his own death with Farrell's help. Wait, what?


Yes, this cheesiest of pulp twists, deserving of bargain-bin Julia Roberts movies back when she didn't know any better, is piled on top of the already straining under the weight of implausibility Widows, and the response is derisive snorts all round. When Neeson surfaces alive and well (in Coon's spare room) my first thought was "Nah, she's just seeing him because they had an affair, there the way Davis has flashbacks". But no, sadly. I mean, McQueen is more than welcome to put his name to any old crap, even to pen the adaptation, but it does rather call into question the judgement of the guy previously rightly feted for Shame, Hunger and 12 Years a Slave, if he really thinks this is anything other than straight-to-video nonsense.


The thing is, for all that I think the screenplay is largely atrocious, and McQueen's got no one but himself to blame for his adoration of LaPlante's original, he does fashion a quite watchable picture. It looks very nice – everything is as crisp, precise and composed as you'd expect – and the heist, when it happens is very slick, and he clearly works well with actors (others of note include Lukas Haas calling on Debicki's services and Gareth Dillahunt in a rare nice guy role as Davis' driver). Neeson's hardly in it enough not to appear somnambulant, but even he’s given something to chew on in the flashbacks concerning their son. The scene of the latter’s death is highly impactful, but like so much of the political-hued material, it doesn't feel as if it belongs in something otherwise so trite.


It's clear both from interviews and the movie itself that a whole lot got cut down, to the extent that elements are left dangling or simply don't make sense (did Davis pay back Henry?; how are there no repercussions for anyone involved – I don't really mean from Farrell who probably doesn't care about the money and was surely glad to be shot of dad – all of whom seem to be staying in the area?; how could a school library refurbishment be dedicated to a known criminal's dead son without serious questions being asked about where the money came from?) Even as fast-and-loose with internal logic Hollywood fare, Widows takes some swallowing. As self-important "political pop", it's laughable.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

The protocol actually says that most Tersies will say this has to be a dream.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)
(SPOILERS) The Wachowski siblings’ wildly patchy career continues apace. They bespoiled a great thing with The Matrix sequels (I liked the first, not the second), misfired with Speed Racer (bubble-gum visuals aside, hijinks and comedy ain’t their forte) and recently delivered the Marmite Sense8 for Netflix (I was somewhere in between on it). Their only slam-dunk since The Matrix put them on the movie map is Cloud Atlas, and even that’s a case of rising above its limitations (mostly prosthetic-based). Jupiter Ascending, their latest cinema outing and first stab at space opera, elevates their lesser works by default, however. It manages to be tone deaf in all the areas that count, and sadly fetches up at the bottom of their filmography pile.

This is a case where the roundly damning verdicts have sadly been largely on the ball. What’s most baffling about the picture is that, after a reasonably engaging set-up, it determinedly bores the pants off you. I haven’t enco…

Seems silly, doesn't it? A wedding. Given everything that's going on.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (2010)
(SPOILERS) What’s good in the first part of the dubiously split (of course it was done for the art) final instalment in the Harry Potter saga is very good, let down somewhat by decisions to include material that would otherwise have been rightly excised and the sometimes-meandering travelogue. Even there, aspects of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I can be quite rewarding, taking on the tone of an apocalyptic ‘70s aftermath movie or episode of Survivors (the original version), as our teenage heroes (some now twentysomethings) sleep rough, squabble, and try to salvage a plan. The main problem is that the frequently strong material requires a robust structure to get the best from it.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…