26 December 2018

First Impressions: Widows

So timely. I've never had this backlog of movies to blog about, but I saw Widows (2018) a few weeks ago - it was fantastic, no one seems to be chatting much about it, so here we go. This will shortly get into Spoilertown, USA so go watch this flick if you're sore about such things.

See, it's like Ocean's 8 (2018) but good and also its own thing
First, we need to talk about how this movie exists at all. The core premise is that a handful of bank-robbing husbands die on a job, so their eponymous widows carry out their final heist plan. See, that doesn't even sound that great. It's contrived. It sounds like it should be a Melissa McCarthy comedy movie. It feels like a weird exercise in distaff counterparts that shouldn't work at all.

Then you read a little more and see that this is the first film Steve McQueen is making after winning the Academy Award for 12 Years a Slave (2013). It's also the first screenplay Gillian Flynn has written since Gone Girl (2014). These are two films that will never be off my Top Ten lists. Anyway, suddenly that makes you re-appreciate the premise. These is a serious competent writer paired with a serious, competent director. There's something else going on here.

The cast reads incredible. Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Ervio, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Carrie Coon, Brian Tee Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jon Bernthal (for like two minutes). I could talk about any of these people being competent serious actors. This is suddenly a high stakes drama and no goofy joke movie. It surprises and twists both in its plot and metanarrative, confounding our own expectations with how much this can be about. It's about housing, institutionalized racism, gerrymandering, gender equality, crime and corruption, grief, betrayal, gun violence - the list goes on. The film touches on everything you could think of and has a deft wit about all it sees.

Let's get into the actual plot and subversion of expectations. Damn how criticism of The Last Jedi (2017) ruined that phrase. It just feels sarcastic now. Anyway, the blokes led by Liam Neeson blow up and it's a bummer for all attached women, but that could have been it. Instead, it becomes very clear very soon that all of these dudes were involved in some nefarious shit and their absence really ruins their widows' lives. Michelle Rod loses her store because apparently her husband didn't do a thing with the money she gave him for rent. Elizabeth Debicki, who needs to be in everything, is left adrift without purpose and turns to prostitution.

The film dresses it up in a bit of brilliant character work. See, Debicki is always chasing a better, more glamorous life. She gets it and her client fills the husband-sized hole in her life, but at the end of the day, it's still paid banging. There's this intersection and irony between her delusions and desire that's somehow fully explored even though she's like the fourth-most important character here.

Finally, Viola Davis gets the toughest hand when she's visited by Atlanta's Brian Tee Henry, who also now needs to be in everything. Henry's running for office against Colin Farrell, and both of them are up to some shady shit. See, the money Liam Neeson blew up trying to steal belonged to Henry, a career gangster criminal trying to turn over a new leaf. I was sold on him genuinely trying to do some good for his community, but he's still in that world, exemplified by his brother, Daniel Kaluuya, who is a nasty sumbitch. They demand Viola gets them their money.

Thus she finds out that Liam planned one last major $5 million heist. Obviously it can't be all that hard. She pulls together the Widows Team and they go to work. Viola is fearsome here, a cold-hearted demanding bitch who gets shit done. Some of that is her dead son shot by cops while talking to her white father. This movie just drips irony, man.

I gotta get that one top button style down.
Now what we eventually find out is that the $5 million actually belongs to Colin Farrell, being money he embezzled out of the transit system. Thus, when it's eventually stolen, he ain't reporting shit. It's a good plan by Liam Neeson, who originally just wanted Viola to sell the book to the Manning brothers (Henry and Kaluuya. I remembered their names), and everything would be square. See, Neeson isn't actually dead - he just took off with that money so he could go shag Carrie Coon on an island somewhere while also helping out Colin Farrell by subtracting his political opponents' election funds (while of course simultaneously helping out his opponent by giving them the means to steal Farrell's own money). Are you still with me?

The crux is that Viola doesn't get scared and turn the book over. She's a queen, so they steal the cash themselves. Part of this movie is watching a group of women who have no idea how to pull this off PULL THIS OFF. They screw up, blow their cover, lose their driver, need to hire Cynthia Ervio (a total badass who holds her own against Viola in some pretty cherry scenes). There's a labyrinthine plot here, but it's largely fueled by character.

Take Colin Farrell. He's not really cut out for politics but feels both pressure from his Robert Duvall father and is dealing with the mess he left him. When Duvall catches the ladies stealing from their house, Michelle Rodriguez shoots him dead. Farrell, who would have preferred losing instead wins the election on a wave of sympathy for his legendary dead father. There's so much irony and payoff in this movie. Every scene has a purpose even as we spend way too much time with this wack rich white family.

In the end, this isn't quite an Ocean's 11 (2001) fun heist movie. McQueen wisely understands that the heist doesn't really matter. Breaking into the house isn't a big deal and their only safecracking is blackmailing the security business' owner into giving them the code. It's a heist movie that cares about its characters, irony, and plotting more than the texture of these things. That may be unfulfilling for some who are expecting that wacky Melissa McCarthy madcap heist film, but I found it immensely satisfying.

This is also that rare film designed for adults. I couldn't believe it sitting in the theater. There was compelling drama, continuous tension, edge of your seat stuff, an intricate thinking plot, and good character work. Not one cape or car chase. I mean, I like capes and car chases, but it was a very different movie for 2018.

As far as flaws go, it's a little on the long side, and there were some long, seemingly disinterested takes from McQueen that I questioned, but this is generally a damn fine film. As I mentioned in the intro, it doesn't seem to be getting all that much praise or award talk generation, but it's a fine addition to our 2010s film canon as anything. Now go watch Aquaman (2018) or something.

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