Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 16, 2018 6:53 am 
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The talented and ambitious black English director Steve McQueen, who is forty-nine, is exceptionally good at one thing above all: drawing attention to his films and giving them a feeling of importance. Let's never forget he began as a maker of brilliant short art films, for which he won the coveted Turner Prize, films with a race-political angle. Sometimes the striking visual concept outweighs moral and intellectual content, as Jake Cole just pointed out on Slant. I still admire his debut feature Hunger the most. It's a dazzling and single-minded depiction of Irish republican hero Bobby Sands' hunger-strike to-the-death at the Maze prison. When I saw it presented at the 2008 New York Film Festival, it was fresh and impressive, and graced by a brilliant new actor, the Irish-German Michael Fassbender, in the lead role. But moving Stateside for the grim Shame (NYFF 2011), a cautionary tale of sex addiction, again with Fassbinder, didn't work nearly as well. It was muddled and McQueen's humorlessness alongside the self-importance began to show.

McQueen's celebrated 12 Years a Slave (NYFF 2013) was powerful, but even grimmer and more humorless. It blatantly punishes the audience. Armond White accurately described it as "depicting slavery as a horror show." In his Widows review, White updates this to an " Oscar-winning high-art horror film." Critics continue to be impressed by McQueen's self-importance. His movies are examples of high commitment. He certainly doesn't mess around. They are well-made and increasingly well-funded and prestigious. Note the terrific cast of Widows headed by Viola Davis and Liam Neeson. Furthermore, Widows' $42 million budget is more than double 12 Years'.

The latter was adapted from a memoir McQueen admired as a youth. This time he again focuses on something he enjoyed (or obsessed about) in his younger days. The source is a 1981 UK TV series, which has been co-adapted by him and Gillian Flynn (of the pulpy Gone Girl). Now the political art-video maker's motives have to be more mixed, because Widows is a big shift in a mainstream direction, a heist thriller with final reversals and surprises, a genre that's designed primarily to entertain. This shift is surprising for the earnest filmmaker. The source story has racial, sexual, and political overtones that lend it significance. Ultimately it's not clear, though, that McQueen has figured out how to blend serious content with entertainment.

The intensity is great. The style is striking. The overall effect can be confusing, especially in the back-and-forth early segment, which intercuts a biracial kiss in extreme closeup with an explosively failed heist. The effect conveyed by McQueen's editor for all his features Joe Walker is smack-in-the-face choppy, meant to dazzle us. Typically for McQueen but this time paradoxically for a thriller, potentially humorous or fun moments are bypassed. As with Shame, the move to Stateside doesn't go well; the Chicago locations don't feel very Chicagoan.

Given the serious political and social messages embedded in the tale, it's unfortunate that the action emerges as preposterous as well as humorless."Reality" Nabokov liked to say is a word always to be in quotes, and entertainers or artists are due license in depicting any versions of it. But Widows, for a film so serious about itself, certainly fails to stay for a minute within the realm of the likely. What Viola Davis' education union official is doing married to Liam Neeson's master criminal and living in a big fancy penthouse is never clear. Anyway, she learns her husband and his crew, whose incineration we've observed in cutup form, were robbing Jamal (Brian Tyree Henry), a black gangster turned local political candidate, when they went up in flames. He comes and warns her she must pony up the missing $2 million PDQ or he'll off, at least her beloved fluffy white dog (herself a prescient player in the action), and maybe her.

This is where the "widows" theme comes in, and the multi-cultural empowerment-by-crime. Harry's (Neeson's) crew were all married, so there are four of them, including Veronica (Davis), She goes looking for the wives of the exploded crew to persuade them to join her in a caper. And here comes another major implausibility. We're to suppose that Harry left behind a key to a safety deposit box containing a bulging notebook full of MSS recording all Harry's major exploits. Really? And these include plans for one more job, as yet uncompleted, that will net $5 mil. That's just enough to pay Veronica's debt to Jamal and tide her and her bereaved gangster moll sisters over for the years ahead. The silliness of this and what is to follow is only emphasized by the McQueen's solemnity in staging it. It could be fun, only it seems McQueen doesn't really do fun.

He and his co-writer have successfully condensed a lot of the mini-series material into a two-hour feature, including its political subplot where Jamal's opposition is the corrupt Chicago Mulligan dynasty headed by Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and his mean, angry father Tom (Robert Duvall). There are a few good moments here. We get to see how the Latina widow, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) discovers her husband has gambled away her clothing shop and it belongs to the bookies, and how the super-tall Polish-American Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) gets pushed successfully by her gansterish mother (Jacki Weaver, the ferocious monster-mom of Animal Kingdom) into becoming a high-priced prostitute whose main client turns out to be Lucas Haas.

There's a little playing with celebrity casting here, and it is fun, if not explicitly. McQueen has gathered a fine group of actors. We get to see Daniel Kaluuya, of Get Out, play Jamal's sadistic brother and enforcer Jatemme, showily executing two rappers and repeatedly spiking a handicapped man. Action galore there is, though much of it doesn't serve the thriller plot, and the eponymous widows don't become three-dimensional, just figures in the action. As Mick LaSalle says, McQueen even manages to get a "lifeless performance" out of Viola Davis, one that's "just a single note of sad and focused determination." Not that she doesn't hold our attention, as usual, and not that scenes aren't impressively staged. McQueen shows he can do violence, as he could do sadism and masochism before.

The worst part is the moments that are laughable, but not played that way. A heist movie should be fun, gleeful, giddy fun. Cineastes will remember not just Oceans 8, a frequent comparison, but Jules Dassin's classic Rififi. Those are pros. That's the pleasure of watching them at work. As Anthony Lane points out in his review of Widows, armed robbery is "not exactly a hobby." Even beekeeping "can take years" to learn. Yet Veronica and her sisters are up and ready in weeks.

This is why her project gives no satisfaction to watch. The big final surprise really isn't one, and undercuts itself. The only audience fun (I heard cheering) is a late John Woo-style shoot-out. Things go wrong, then right, unconvincingly, and the ending is botched and anticlimactic.

What's also lacking, what McQueen has no knack for, which you really need to convey the intersection of politics and crime, is atmosphere, mood, a real sense of background such as the slipstream flashbacks to Veronica and Harry cannot provide. It's another thing you can't pick up fast, it's just a feel you have to have. James Gray has it. Skip Widows and get Gray's Little Odessa, The Yards and We Own the Night. In these he does what McQueen is trying to do - belies and pleasingly blurs the distinction between mainstream and auteur.

Widows, 129 mins., debuted at Toronto, showing in nine other festivals including Mill Valley and London. It opens wide in US theaters 16 Nov. 2018. Metascore 86.


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