Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Widows: Ocean’s Eight in a Minor Key

A small clutch of women, who would seem to have little in common, band together to stage a major heist. Partly they’re after the loot, but this job is also a  way of answering the men in their lives, showing that they too have the balls to pull off something big. Does this description sound like Ocean’s Eight? I enjoyed that frothy caper flick, in which Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, and such diverse women as Mindy Kaling, Rihana, and Awkwafina, make off with all the loot at a posh society ball, at least partly in homage to Bullock’s character’s dearly departed brother, Danny Ocean. Widows, though, has much bigger things on its mind.

Widows is the latest from Steve McQueen, whose 12 Years a Slave won the Best Picture Oscar in 2014. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely a fan of that film. Yes, it was skillfully made. But I, for one, felt myself responding to it dutifully, out of a sense of obligation to appreciate a movie all too clearly intended to teach a lesson to the American public. With Widows, no such problem. This is a taut, diverting thriller that makes its socio-political point while never failing our yen to get caught up in a twisty plot. You’re always entertained, but there’s a lot going on beneath the surface.

Widows concerns several women whose husbands have just been killed while trying to hijack millions from a Chicago political campaign. With their private lives in disarray, the new widows are persuaded by one of their number, played by the fierce and yet vulnerable Viola Davis, to carry off the scheme their husbands didn’t live to see through to fruition. By way of flashback glimpses of their former lives, we know that while Davis and her husband (played by Liam Neeson) had a powerful romantic bond, the other women must cling to less happy memories. The devil-may-care spouse of Michelle Rodriguez had a gambling habit that now jeopardizes the future of her barrio dress shop, not to mention the well-being of her children. Newcomer Elizabeth Debicki (whose performance has already garnered accolades) lost an abusive spouse and now finds herself beholden to a chauvinistic suitor who feels he has bought her favors.

Female victimization and female empowerment are important threads throughout the story, but by placing these against a local political campaign McQueen also comments on an all-male world in which both sides—both that of the patrician white alderman and that of the upstart black wannabe—are  equally venal (and equally brutal). Some reviewers have found this political backstory less than satisfying, but for me it contributes to the complexity of the world in which Davis and company find themselves. And here’s an example of McQueen’s artistry at work: Davis’s character, who lives well because of her husband’s long criminal past, resides in a sleek modern condo with stark white walls and carefully chosen works of art. In virtually every scene, she’s outfitted in high-style clothing in shades of inky black and crisp white. There’s only one scene in which she wears a Technicolor hue: a bright red sweater. And this scene, which starts out simply enough, turns out to be her character’s essential turning point.

Black, of course, is an appropriate color for a new widow to wear. But I can’t help thinking that McQueen is also quietly commenting on the role of race in the Davis character’s life. The very fact that she’s married to a white man ultimately becomes a part of the unfolding tragedy, in ways that an audience would not at first guess.  

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