A pair of car rides figure prominently in Steve McQueen’s new film Widows (2018). The first spans only a dozen-or-so blocks and a few turns, starting in an abandoned lot that political hopeful Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) has zoned for a sketchy small business initiative and ending at the palatial Mulligan estate nearby. For the duration of the drive, he spews a racism-laced tirade articulating his utter contempt for what he calls ‘the business of politics,’ a dirty game into which he was forced by his father.
McQueen mounts the camera on the hood of the vehicle and lets it roll for one continuous shot lasting no longer than two or three minutes, plotting a short path from the tree-lined avenues housing the moneyed one-percenters to the rougher neighbourhoods in which they wield their dirty influence. It’s a tactful, unobtrusive way to communicate precisely how little distance separates the haves from the have-nots in this corner of Chicago.
The second takes place deep in the film’s second act, in flashback. Would-be robber Veronica (Viola Davis) recalls the death of her son Marcus, heretofore alluded to with a single shot of his headstone and a couple lines of charged, context-light dialogue. A full life ahead of him, the teen was on his way to a big game when he received a call from his father demanding the boy return home with the family car. In a rush, Marcus decides to bang a quick U-turn and gets flagged down by a police cruiser.
From there, we know the sad story: a few tense words, an innocent reach to the glovebox, errant bullets, tragedy. What we don’t know is who Marcus is, or for that matter, what his death means apart from the sadness it brings Veronica and its utility as politicized iconography. The cynical treatment of Marcus as an object to generate pathos particularly sticks out in a film dedicated to conspicuously empowering the marginalized – women, people of colour, the working poor.
The wide gulf in sensitivity between the film’s best scene and its worst is emblematic of a work at odds with itself, though not between its ambitions as a thriller and its leanings towards social commentary. That friction comes from the scrape between McQueen and his co-screenwriter Gillian Flynn, two artistic temperaments diametrically opposed to one another. The former is obsessive, fastidious, and detail-oriented where the latter tends towards the sensationalistic, driven by mechanics and rhythms of plot, and primarily occupied with dramatic effect. The collision of these two sensibilities results in a script that undermines its methodical, observational discipline with the need to present information in a titillating manner. As a director, McQueen builds his film with the rigour and exactitude of an instruction manual, but the script written with Flynn wants it to read like an airport paperback.
Everywhere she writes, Flynn leaves twists in her wake. Sometimes she favours the mid-point switcheroo, a surprise that reorients the basic premise of the film and sends it off in a new direction. (As in Gone Girl , a film that pivots from a murder mystery into an altogether darker, stranger, and more sinister beast.) Sometimes Flynn goes the more Shyamalanian route, yanking the rug out in the final moments. (As in this year’s HBO series Sharp Objects, which stopped just short of the signature three-chord shorthand for shock for its final reveal.) In either instance, Flynn arranges her meting-out of plot points to maximize the gasp factor, and in the case of Widows, it doesn’t gel with McQueen’s fascination with process.
McQueen is never better than when looking at things closely to find out how they work. In 2011’s Shame, he took the itemized stock of a rigorous daily routine to clarify how an unstable man might functionally handle his crippling sex addiction, and in his Oscar-festooned 12 Years A Slave (2014), the nitty-gritty of plantation life revealed an entrenched evil in the system that supported it. Widows excels when couching its broadsides against racism and sexism in the day-to-day labour of preparing a heist; statuesque Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) learns to use the looks that have gotten her treated like a piece of meat her whole life to her advantage, first manipulating a flirty weirdo at a police auction, then a gun nut at a firearms expo.
By the final shootout, Widows has inadvertently delivered a full thesis on the limits of the auteur, effectively proving that it’s impossible to assign authorship when a director and writer work in such distinctive, contradictory styles. Both Flynn and McQueen have a lot on their mind about identity and self-sufficiency and power, but they’re incapable of reconciling their ideas of how to express it. Flynn wants to seize control of the audience’s heart rate for the duration of their time in the theatre, jacking up the pathos and outrage when things start to get slow. McQueen is fine working in a more subdued register, confident in the knowledge that his sway over his viewer will last long beyond the end credits.
Without the steady-handedness of McQueen’s last few films and without the unabashed embrace of the lurid that made Gone Girl such a devilish pleasure, Widows ends up in the no-man’s-land territory of the mixed bag. Those flashes of meticulous brilliance – an exhilarating botched job at the outset, then the second robbery that gives the film its sleek finale – enliven the overall film and reassure the audience that they’re in the hands of a master. But at the same time, they taunt us with the promise of what could’ve been.
Main image: Steve McQueen, Widows, 2018, film still. Courtesy: 20th Century Fox