Edwin Arnaudin: A few weeks ago when we hosted a screening of The Old Man & the Gun, we remarked on how few heist films involve all-woman crews. Set It Off and this year’s Ocean’s 8 are pretty much the lone recognizable titles to fit that criteria, but now they’re joined by Widows, directed and co-written by Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave). Is the Chicago-set caper a welcome addition to this renegade club or would you prefer it behind bars?
Bruce Steele: I vote for no club membership for Widows, mainly because it isn't really a heist movie. Or if it is, it's the one of the lamest heist movies I've seen in a while. The heist planning is haphazard and unconvincing and the crime itself could have been a 30-second segment in The Old Man & the Gun. No, this is another Gillian Flynn movie about toxic relationships, which seem to be the only kind of relationships that interest the Gone Girl author and co-screenwriter here. I can't even think of a significant healthy relationship — lovers, parents, siblings, friends, you name it — in any of her three movies and one HBO series. Even the bond among the titular women in this movie is tainted by distrust, anger and withholding. Ocean's 4 this is not.
Edwin: I’m still smarting from the audience-insulting credit sequence from Flynn’s Sharp Objects finale, but other than one unimaginative attempt at hyper-relevancy, I barely see her fingerprints here. For me, it’s McQueen’s movie, and though it never quite hits the emotional devastation and visual artistry of his 12 Years, Hunger and Shame, I remained mesmerized by the story, characters and the hard-nosed yet still beautiful way he depicts their world. Were you bored or was it more that the issues that arose kept you at a distance?
Bruce: McQueen's visual style is impressive, but the movie is plot driven, and I found the plot points consistently in the Flynn realm of shameless exploitation. We've got her usual abuse of women used to justify weak empowerment flag-waving and horrific betrayals with lame motivations, and this go-round even tosses the police shooting of a young black man insensitively into the mix. The only major Flynn calling card missing is the weaponization of mental illness, although Daniel Kaluuya's psychotic killer role might be said to check that box. I wish I saw more McQueen impact in the writing, but to me he just let Flynn recycle her usual tired tricks. I wish I knew more about the six-hour British miniseries from 1983 on which this is based, so I could better assign blame.
Edwin: The plot never really lost me. I was hooked by the premise of Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) being tasked by gangster Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry, FX’s Atlanta) to recoup the $2 million her deceased husband Harry (Liam Neeson) stole from him. There are so many well-developed moving parts here, from the individual lives of fellow crew widows Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gatsby) to the political/criminal intrigue of Jamal challenging Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) for the 18th Ward’s Alderman position vacated by the latter’s elderly father Tom (Robert Duvall). It’s a taut structure that results in consistent drama and tension, and with few exceptions, everyone gets at least one moment to shine.
Bruce: I hear what you're saying, and I acknowledge all those plot points, but otherwise I didn't share your experience at all. The whole plot thread about competing criminals competing in a Chicago election bore not a ounce of credibility (except for Duvall's one great scene telling off his son). The widows all came across as stock characters unworthy of the fine actresses portraying them, and subject to sudden shifts in personality to justify Flynn's usual Big Plot Twists. The exception to me was Cynthia Erivo, as a street-smart mom who joins the crew as the driver but has little to do after one nice face-off with Davis. I just don't know what you saw in this shameless trifle that reminded you of McQueen's serious and measured work on 12 Years a Slave.
Edwin: The two films share little in regard to subject matter, but the focus on compelling characters in stressful situations, filmed through an elite professional lens are common bonds. The single-take from the car hood of Jack being driven from a campaign stop at a housing project to his swanky house a few blocks away is a brilliant visual commentary on the environment. Then there’s the scene in a basketball gym where Kaluuya's Jatemme (a frightening character — and my favorite performance in the film) gets up in two low-level henchmen’s faces while the camera circles them like a horror film version of Ring Around the Rosy. The payoff there is a stunner and the heist itself is masterfully executed from a directorial standpoint. I can’t believe you weren’t similarly enthralled!
Bruce: I noted and appreciated the visual flourishes, but they did not rescue for me the manipulative, completely implausible script. Flynn seems to mistake plot twists for storytelling and has no apparent interest in creating admirable characters of any kind in anything she writes. Everyone in her world is either selfish or weak, and most are deeply flawed. Lord knows what betrayals in her life gave her such a dim view of humanity. Furthermore, the movies with the most iconic plot twists — The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects, say — reveal and deepen complicated characters we've come to understand. Flynn's twists just trash her character work up to that point and tell audiences they've been lied to. It's not fun. It's insulting.
Edwin: Nothing major about the writing stands out as implausible to me. Maybe it’s because I don’t have personal experience with the milieu these characters inhabit, but I didn’t find myself questioning the legitimacy of their actions or consequences. Veronica, Linda, Alice, and Erivo’s Belle are four average women thrust into extraordinary circumstances and rise to the occasion — with help from Harry’s journal (Flynn staple alert!) and their ingenuity. Some gains over their month deadline to deliver the dough to Jamal come easy or via coincidence, but that feels indicative of real life. As for lying to audiences, Flynn and McQueen are actually playing fair here and show viewers something during the initial heist that doesn’t seem right. All told, it gets a high B-plus from me.
Bruce: Well, I'm clearly in the minority, but I've done my job in raising a warning flag on this one. I hope it's not another five years until the next McQueen movie, because the guy's got serious visual chops. And I'm even open to another Flynn story, hoping she might temper her bad habits as time passes, because she's clever. She just needs to take the rug-pulling down a notch in favor of more sympathetic character arcs. This one has a few moments rescued by the McQueen touches you pointed out and by the stellar (if hobbled) cast, so I've raised the grade from Flynn's F to a D-plus.
Grade: C-plus. Rated R. Now playing at Biltmore Grande, Carolina Cinemark and Grail Moviehouse
(Photos: Twentieth Century Fox)