by Matthew Jacobs and Zeba Blay
If America were screwed on straight, “Widows“ would have raked in cash last weekend. But everything is crooked, and we can’t have nice things, not even at the movies, where we go to escape the ongoing wasteland.
Two HuffPost writers, Zeba Blay and Matthew Jacobs, are here to tell you just how wrongheaded everyone was when they decided to catch “Fantastic Beasts! Here We Go Again, This Franchise Will Never End” or “Bohemian Rhapsody” instead of Steve McQueen’s poignant thriller about four women who band together to pull off the heist that saddled them with their late husbands’ debt.
Do people know “Widows” is co-written by Gillian Flynn of “Gone Girl” and “Sharp Objects” fame? Do people know it has Viola Freakin’ Davis at the center? Do people know it’s a roller coaster that’s both artful and sensational, as any good roller coaster should be? Apparently, they don’t, so let us correct the record.
Matthew Jacobs: Zeba, hello! Finally, we are putting our “Widows”-loving heads together to discuss this film. It sort of petered out in its opening weekend, coming in fifth place at the box office, with an underwhelming $12.4 million. So my first question to you is, What the hell?
Zeba Blay: What. The. Hell. I’m so confused, because this film has generally received amazing reviews AND it stars … Viola Davis? And Liam Neeson? What more could you want? Part of me feels like what went wrong was (besides the fact that the “Fantastic Beasts” sequel hit theaters the same weekend) … maybe people don’t know what to do with a female-led, Black-woman-led genre film? Maybe? What do you think?
MJ: Somehow, people would rather see a bad Freddie Mercury biopic and a Mark Wahlberg comedy over a star-studded heist thriller that deserves a Best Picture nomination? (No offense to “Instant Family,” which I haven’t seen and which has the great Rose Byrne. I just can’t believe Mark Wahlberg is still a draw in 2018.)
If there’s one thing “Widows” teaches us, it’s that you can’t trust anyone these days. Maybe we should have spent Thanksgiving canvassing people’s homes so they’ll get out and see this damn movie. It deserves to be experienced the old-fashioned way, with an audience that’s gasping and cheering at the screen.
ZB: It really does. In my theater, when THAT twist happened, there were audible gasps, and one lady screamed. It was awesome.
But I need to pause here. Wait. Mark Wahlberg has a movie out? Really? And people are watching it? More than “Widows”? Wow.
It kind of boggles my mind that men continue to get mediocrity passes like this. Like, I can’t remember the last good movie Wahlberg made, but I can think of several great things almost everyone involved with “Widows” has done – Steve McQueen being at the top of that list.
I wrote a review last week about how “Widows” is such a stark portrait of America post-2016, but I think the fact that it’s not even No. 3 or 2 at the box office is also hugely telling about America and American audiences. Maybe I’m biased? But “Widows” is just such a genuinely entertaining film. What made you love it? What makes you think it deserves to be seen?
MJ: Mark Wahlberg hasn’t been in a good movie since Cher Horowitz name-dropped him in “Clueless.” (Just kidding; requisite shout-out to “Boogie Nights,” still his best movie 21 years later.)
To my mind, “Widows” is an ideal hybrid. McQueen knew exactly what he was doing in blending the art-house style he showed in “Shame” and “12 Years a Slave” with the electrifying twists and turns that moviegoers crave. He did what not enough filmmakers today are doing: made a crowd-pleaser with flair, originality and something to say.
It’s amazing how profound “Widows” is, as you captured in your review. It’s pretty brazen to make a movie about women banding together that avoids simplistic girl-power messages and instead goes after a larger political underbelly. What do you most admire about it?
ZB: I think what I admire so much about it is the way that it shifts expectations, shifts narratives, shifts paradigms. It’s a redefinition of what a heist film can be, what a genre film can be and what a leading lady looks like. I admire that, and the fact that this movie is brave, from the very first shot. It isn’t afraid to confront the audience even as it works to entertain us, surprise us.
I really can’t remember the last movie of this sort that dealt so frankly with race, with sex, with violence in a way that didn’t feel pedantic or forced. Those are the best kinds of moviegoing experiences – the ones that are entertaining all the way through but that also make you think. Not in a my-brain-hurts kind of way but in that lingering, genuinely stimulating way that makes you rethink your own narratives and biases.
Like, it’s so hard to make a smart action-thriller-drama that doesn’t beat you over the head with its intelligence, and McQueen has pulled it off brilliantly. I could literally go on and on.
I wanted to ask, speaking of that first scene/shot of Harry (Neeson) and Veronica (Davis) making out – what did you think of it? I felt sort of jarred by it, but it sets such a tone for what the rest of the movie will be.
MJ: “Jarring” is just the right word. It’s sexy as hell, the two of them lying in bed, really going at each other’s faces in a way that most middle-aged married couples don’t. But what I really love is the harsh way it’s intercut with the inciting shootout. Going back and forth between quiet intimacy and alarming violence feels as real as it gets – “a caress and a slap, a caress and a slap,” as McQueen put it when I talked to him about the film.
It’s not as effective to open with only the botched heist, because then it feels like a Quentin Tarantino or Michael Mann joint. We have to feel Veronica and Harry’s romance, or else the big twist that comes later doesn’t land the same way. Here, we’re caught off-guard from the get-go, already anticipating a roller coaster.
ZB: “A caress and a slap” – I love that. And I also really loved the intermittent flashbacks of Veronica and her life before her husband’s death, before all the heist stuff. As you point out, all of those touches just create a much more vivid portrait of the characters. They raise the stakes. There were really no moments in this movie where I felt I could see what was going to happen, especially after the Twist.
I have to say here, we’re giving a lot of love to Davis and Neeson, but this movie has such an amazing ensemble cast. Brian Tyree Henry was especially great as Jamal Manning, a gangster and aspiring politician. Daniel Kaluuya was just straight-up terrifying as Jamal’s enforcer. And of the widows, I must say I really, really liked what Elizabeth Debicki, who played Alice, did with her role. Her entire arc was very girl power without being obvious or obnoxious.
MJ: A dynamite cast through and through. Kaluuya and Henry’s dual villain act is straight out of the Anton Chigurh playbook, and I love it. Kaluuya jumps in people’s faces like a menace whose path you’d hope never to cross. But man, Davis, even in Veronica’s more fearful moments, really holds her own against them. Seeing the women gain the resolve to pull off the heist is an adventure unto itself.
One other thing I loved: the long tracking shot that follows a key politician (Colin Farrell) after he gives a stump speech in a low-rent neighborhood. He gets in his nice chauffeured car, but the camera stays outside, riding along as the street view shifts to mansions and manicured lawns. A tale of two cities flashes by in the span of a few minutes, and suddenly “Widows” becomes a fable about class. Did that moment work for you too, or was there another highlight you responded to?
ZB: That part had me shook, just because of how seamless it was. The transition only hits you – or at least only really hit me – when the camera came to rest on the face of the politician’s driver, a black man. So much said with so little.
Another scene that really hit me in the gut was the encounter between Veronica and Jamal, when he pays her a little visit at home to menace her into coughing up the $2 million her husband stole. First of all, it’s just really great to see two Black actors at the height of their ability in such a tense scene.
But there’s one point when Jamal is sort of teasing her about all of the nice, fancy things in her condo, only to remind her that, because her husband is dead, “you’re nothing now – welcome back.” It’s just such an interesting line because I think it says far more about Jamal than it says about Veronica. His yearning for power but specifically political power says so much, again, about the racial dynamics in this movie. And most important, it adds dimension to what in a regular heist movie would just be a stock villain.
MJ: That scene with Veronica and Jamal lays out many of the movie’s cards. It’s also when we start to fear for Veronica’s fluffy white dog, which humanizes her as she becomes more and more of a take-no-prisoners fireball. Jamal uses the pooch as ammo, so it quickly becomes connected to the widows’ crime ― so much so that, before the big heist, Veronica leaves the dog at a kennel, knowing there’s a chance she won’t make it out alive. It’s heartbreaking, but it also provides insight into Veronica’s soulfulness, especially given how much loss she has suffered.
OK, so it’s clear we’re in agreement: This movie is great. What can we say to persuade people not to let it pass them by? Now is our chance!
ZB: This movie is awesome, and I really hope that word of mouth or the hype of awards season makes people take another look at it. There are so many things about the film that make it worth the watch, from the soundtrack (!) to the cinematography (!!) to the absolutely stellar performances from one of the best ensemble casts this year (!!!). Maybe people are getting the feeling that it’s all heavy, heavy, heavy, but I assure you, this movie is pure fun. Watching the heist itself go down is worth the price of admission alone.
But honestly, all I want to say to convince people is that it’s VIOLA FUCKING DAVIS. KICKING ASS AND TAKING NAMES. As I said before, what more could you possibly want, y’all?
MJ: You said “Widows” is a metaphor for post-2016 America, and so is the muted attention it’s receiving. Quality is sitting right there in front of us, but the country is ignoring it. Sounds familiar.
Let us have nice things, America. Go see “Widows.”
Matthew Jacobs is an entertainment reporter for HuffPost, covering film and other pop-culture topics. Contact him via Twitter: @tarantallegra. Zeba Blay is senior culture writer for HuffPost. Contact her via Twitter: @zblay.