Saturday, November 17, 2018

Disrupting The Body Politic In Chicago

Viola Davis as Veronica in Steve McQueen's "Widows", which opened yesterday in the U.S. and Canada. Fox 


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Saturday, November 17, 2018

Arresting and fascinating -- two verbs to describe Steve McQueen's "Widows", one of the year's best films.  Mr. McQueen opens his glossy, blue-green-hued minimalist heist drama with a stark, peaceful image: a Black woman (Viola Davis) and a white man (Liam Neeson) kissing tenderly in bed against white linen sheets.  Mr. McQueen intersperses flashbacks of Veronica (Ms. Davis) and Harry (Mr. Neeson) and their married life together.  They experience tragedy in Chicago, the perfect backdrop for Mr. McQueen's latest examination of anatomy, this time of a corrupt, treacherous political system controlled and dominated by (gangs of) white men, and women's (and everyone else's) survival in it.

Veronica and two other women (played by Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki) it turns out, have been widowed owing to a botched heist by their husbands in which two million dollars burned in a fire.  The money belonged to African-American Jamal Manning, who is running for alderman of Chicago's 18th ward (Brian Tyree Henry) against the Windy City political machine hierarchy white family Mulligan, led by its latest iteration in Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and authored by his racist father (Robert Duvall).  Think: Richard J. Daley, whom Mr. Duvall's character resembles, and not by accident.  The machinations of the Mulligans are more of the Boss Tweed variety, however.  Oh, about those missing millions?  The three widows have one month to repay the money, Manning's violent henchman (Daniel Kaluuya of "Get Out" and "Black Panther") warns.

Sharply written with great dialogue by author Gillian Flynn ("Gone Girl") and Mr. McQueen, the densely-layered and mathematical "Widows" (also based on the mid- 1980s British television series by Lynda La Plante) is about many things: the cruel reality of the American Dream for the powerless, the exploitation of that Dream by the powerful, and distinct, discrete families trying to gain a foothold amidst it all. 

There's a boldness, ruthlessness and irony about what we see in "Widows": Joe Walker's calm, discreet and marvelous editing belies the chaotic, vigorous, boiling and violent (in many dimensions) events that transpire.  The rich, saturated visions by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt only emphasizes that the incidents on screen are more insidious and sickly. 

Mr. McQueen and his team brilliantly tell the story of a lie that wounds so many actors, almost all of whom cannot possibly be said to be bad gals or bad guys.  It's the system itself that produces these actors because it's the system, Mr. McQueen appears to argue, that is its own biggest enemy and cyclical problem.  Structures prop up a fragile, weak minority by assaulting and preying upon the vast majority held captive (or heisted) in that structure.  "Widows" mandates that corrective measures are required.  "Widows" is like an extended political campaign ad about America, and I write those words with earnest seriousness.

The cynicism of the system, a system which plays out to devastating effect in many scenes, infects both Veronica, a devoted, prinicpled and hard-nosed pragmatist and Jack, a contemptuous, deceitful man who holds pantomimed campaign events to feature initiatives by Black women business owners in Chicago.  One of numerous excellent scenes features Jack (who himself wants a defeat of the white male powers in Chicago) expressing what he really feels while his wife whips him into shape.  It's a classic enabling of the landscape of power, done in Shakespearean Lady Macbeth style, most notably by a party whose gender has been squashed and oppressed by that powerful system.  Some of the women in "Widows" are enablers and entrenchers of the patriarchy but even their love (some of it familial) is never less than well-intentioned.

The brilliantly acted "Widows" is also about men and women and the gendered roles they occupy in a patriarchy and Mr. McQueen (a Black man) and Ms. Flynn (a white woman) reorder that dynamic here so very well and thoroughly.  "Because they don't think we have the balls to pull this off!", one character says to her sisterhood, in one of the film's very best lines.  (Another line, "I had to save me!", is a metaphorical line aswell as a plaintive one.)  It is refreshing to see women in a Tinseltown film having the kinds of truthful, complete, in-depth conversations about their aspirations, fears, hopes, dreams and goals -- but even more, it is greater to see the proactive ways in which this embattled sisterhood operates.  Hans Zimmer's percolating score ups the ante and augments the mission that these women, joined by a babysitter (Cynthia Erivo), whose lack of job choices and options pushes her to quickly accept a key role in the heist.

In her best big screen performance Ms. Davis excellently commands, caresses and controls Veronica as a superbly dimensional leader, lover, mother, plotter, architect and most clearly and obviously a Black woman, a dark-skinned Black woman at that -- a rarity at all in Hollywood film, as a thinker, doer, emoter, investigator, feeler and actor.  Veronica has an anthem, so by extension does Ms. Davis.  Nina Simone's "Wild Is The Wind" is that anthem, as precious, precise and yearning as any for a character in recent film memory.  The song crystalizes Veronica, but the director seems to reach deeper here to Ms. Davis herself, and her infectious, warm persona and the impactful awards speeches she has given.  Viola Davis deserves the Oscar for her work in "Widows", in an excellent career-making performance.  There's one scene in "Widows" that shows you why Oscar is coming to Ms. Davis in 2019.  (You will, I believe, instantly know which scene it is.)

One thing I asked myself after seeing this fine ensemble film: are the players on this wonderfully nuanced (and sometimes not) chessboard bad?  I don't think so.  The external pressures of a system have pushed them to make choices and react to the stench of what they are living in.  Mr. McQueen, more dimensional and restrained in his direction in his most "conventional" but best effort, shows us a final image that is as clever as his opening one.  One character might be talking to the wind, the system, to us, or all of the above. 

"Widows", Chicago, Mr. McQueen and Ms. Flynn are a perfect match: it's not the excellent architecture of the buildings that count here, it's the even better architecture and anthropology of the system and the people in it that do. 

With: Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon (who I didn't even remember who she played in the film!)

"Widows" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for violence, language throughout, and some sexual content/nudity.  The film's running time is two hours and nine minutes.

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