Article Thumbnail

In a World of Self-Perpetuating Franchises, ‘Widows’ Does Something Amazing — It Ends

Plus some other random thoughts about the new Steve McQueen thriller

Widows is one of my favorite films of the year, and one of my favorite things about it is its ending. I’m not going to ruin it here, or even hint at what it is, but the movie concludes on just the right note. I love when that happens — and it’s rare. There are plenty of terrific movies that, for whatever reason, don’t quite stick the landing, and that’s always vaguely disappointing. In some ways, a movie is only as good as its ending — like a good first date, everything leads up to that final, anticipatory moment that will determine if the whole thing was a success or a fiasco.

But as I’ve written about, we now live in a world of endless cliffhangers as big franchises play out over multiple installments. I recently watched Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Whatshisname, and I was reminded that it’s only the second movie in what will be a five-film series. I watched Fantastic Beasts 2 mostly because I knew I had to in order to keep up plot-wise when, inevitably, I had to watch the subsequent films. These movies don’t end — they’re self-perpetuating so that we’re always watching and consuming more of them.

A movie like Widows, however, ends. And it ends specifically because it’s not part of a franchise. I suppose, by some fluke, if the movie made $500 million that Fox would consider making another one. But that seems unlikely, partly because it’s a movie that hasn’t been constructed to string us along for possible sequels. When Widows ends, it ends. And that’s the end of our commitment to it.

This is an arrangement I prefer — I watch it for a while, and then it’s over and I can get on with my day. For me, hell is being recommended some peak-TV series and then being warned, “Oh, and by the way, the first season is a little slow, but it gets so much better in Season Two.” Actually, I don’t have to wait for hell — this is something that occurs all the time for me. So much of our entertainment demands our undying loyalty — it never actually ends. Television series just keep going, occasionally prompting a jolt of surprise from the culture: “Wait, NCIS: New Orleans is still on?”

What’s funny, of course, is that Widows is actually based on a 1980s British TV series, which 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen loved. But he’s not fond of the current TV boom. “There was a moment in the 1990s or early 2000s when it was amazing,” he recently said. “And now it’s just, ‘Get stuff done. We need stuff.’ I don’t know what’s happening now, but obviously the quality has gone down a little bit. There’s more of it, but less quality.”

“We need stuff” has become the prevailing attitude across TV, streaming and blockbuster movies. Critic Amanda Hess commented on this in a recent New York Times essay, where she lamented our lack of endings. “Didn’t endings used to mean something?” she writes. “They imbued everything that came before them with significance, and then they gave us the space to reflect on it all. More than that: They made us feel alive. The story ended, but we did not. … We needed stories to end so we could make sense of them. We needed characters to die so we could make sense of ourselves.”

Hess touches on two important ideas there, and they’re both worth pondering. The first is that we need time away from even our favorite things. I think the best movie ever made is 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’ve watched it, in the last 10 years, maybe twice. That strikes some people as odd: If I love it so much, why don’t I feel the need to watch and rewatch it? Well, it’s because I don’t want to dilute my experience by seeing it over and over — I want it to remain special, a finite thing. I like that it ends and then I can spend years thinking about it afterward. It requires nothing more of me, and so I find myself more willing to devote the time to pondering what’s so great about it.

Widows isn’t in the same league as 2001, obviously, but already there’s a similar dynamic happening in my head. And that leads to Hess’s second observation. Characters die in Widows — their deaths may be shocking, ironic or even deeply satisfying, but make no mistake, at the end of the movie, they’re definitely still dead. They’re not going to be resurrected like in a superhero movie. And the permanence of that is powerful — and it makes the fact that other characters survived more meaningful.

I keep describing Widows to friends as a really grownup movie, and maybe that’s what I mean: McQueen and his terrific cast (including Viola Davis as the leader of this group of widows on a dangerous bank heist) treat life and death as weighty things that impact this movie — not like some installment in a chain of sequels to come. In fact, that reality is baked into Widows. As the story begins, Davis’ character Veronica is grieving for her dead husband (Liam Neeson), an ace bank robber whose most recent heist got him and his partners killed. When she teams up with her husband’s deceased fellow crooks’ wives (Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki), they’re not just trying to complete a robbery — they’re jointly mourning the loss of these men. People’s stories end in Widows, but ours doesn’t, and because McQueen respects the audience enough, he doesn’t cheat. (Because I’m keeping this piece spoiler-free, I’ll just add that the one time he “cheats,” it’s justified and it resonates.)

Since I saw Widows at the Toronto Film Festival, I’ve heard colleagues suggest it might have worked better as a miniseries — after all, there are plenty of subplots and characters to follow. I’m grateful it isn’t. Part of the fun of a great movie is its limited running time — we know that there are built-in constraints, and so, it’s exciting to see how a deft filmmaker works within those restraints. I get why someone can appreciate Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House because it allows us time to really know each of those characters. But even with that accomplished series, I found myself burdened by its length. I enjoy watching good things, but I like them even better when they’re done.

Here are three other takeaways from Widows.

#1. Chicago is a great, underrated movie city.

The original British series Widows was set in London, but McQueen’s film takes place in the Windy City. And while I don’t live in Chicago, I felt like the movie uses the city in really smart, thoughtful ways — the film’s social and political subtext is so important to the story, and you really do feel embedded into Chicago’s bloodstream.

Over at Vulture, Brian Tallerico (who lives in Chicago) recently put together a list of the best Chicago movies. And he’s very specific about what qualifies: “The main criterion for this list was that the films really use Chicago. Don’t just have a character mention the city and then film the movie on L.A. sets. And try not to have mountains in the background if you claim to be in the Midwest.”

Because I grew up in rural, downstate Illinois, I’ve always had a strange relationship with Chicago. In some ways, Chicago seemed very appealing — the big city! — but there was also a snobbery about the place that made me defensive, almost as if Chicago considered itself to be its own place separate from the rest of Illinois. (Spoiler Alert: People who live there kinda do think this.)

Regardless, Tallerico’s list is full of great Chicago-specific films, including Hoop Dreams, The Fugitive and The Blues Brothers. But those movies are set in Chicago, so they’re not surprising picks — I was especially happy that Tallerico also included The Dark Knight, which, technically, takes place in Gotham but was filmed in Chicago. And because the Windy City skyline isn’t as famous as, say, New York’s, director Christopher Nolan was able to give us a fictional Gotham that actually used a lot of the real Chicago.

Looking at this list, what strikes me is that Chicago-set movies feel, to me, very much like the people who live in Chicago. These films have an unpretentious, workmanlike quality to them — they get the job done without any fuss. There’s a grounded quality to the characters — they’re regular folks who just so happen to live in a big city. They don’t have all the affectations you see from people in New York and L.A. Widows fits in perfectly to that model.

By the way, in case you’re wondering, I asked some Chicago friends if McQueen’s movie gets the city wrong in any way. Apparently, the “L” Train doesn’t look as good as it does in Widows.

#2. Is bank robbing still a thing?

Bank heists are a common trope in movies — and, of course, it’s the engine powering Widows but I got to thinking: Do people really steal from banks anymore? Since most of us barely carry cash anymore, what’s the point of knocking off a bank? So I decided to check out FBI statistics to see if those numbers were going down.

The first thing I learned was that, according to the FBI’s website, “In 1934, it became a federal crime (under FBI jurisdiction) to rob any national bank or state member bank of the Federal Reserve.” I then dug into the data — the site has information for 14 years of robberies, starting with 2016. Here’s what I found…

  • 2016: 4,251
  • 2015: 4,091
  • 2014: 3,961
  • 2013: 4,290
  • 2012: 4,412
  • 2011: 5,086
  • 2010: 5,628
  • 2009: 6,062
  • 2008: 6,849
  • 2007: 6,943
  • 2006: 7,272
  • 2005: 6,957
  • 2004: 7,720
  • 2003: 7,644

That number refers to “all violations” — which includes “robberies,” “burglaries” and “larcenies” — that take place in banks, credit unions and even armored cars. And, for the most part, those totals have decreased over time, whether because security has become more advanced or because a cashless society has discouraged thieves.

Another fun thing about checking out these stats: They indicate when are the most popular days and times to rob a bank. In 2016, for instance, Fridays were the biggest robbery day. (Probably not surprisingly, Sunday is the least popular.) Banks were robbed most often that year between 9 and 11 a.m. (Right behind that? 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.) And, apparently, in the world of bank robbing, the early bird does not get the worm: 6 to 9 a.m. was by far the least-common time for a heist. I guess criminals like to sleep in.

#3. Here’s the one song on the soundtrack you need to hear.

All in-demand film composers have their go-to sonic templates. A John Williams score sounds different than a Danny Elfman one, which sounds completely different from a Carter Burwell score. But arguably the most distinctive popular composer is Hanz Zimmer. The Oscar-winner has worked with Christopher Nolan several times in the past decade, and he loves using synthesizers and heavy percussion to make intense, pounding anthems. (That brommmm! noise from Inception? That’s him.)

Zimmer wrote the music for Widows, and he’s definitely up to his old tricks. But when the film segues to its big heist, trust me, those old tricks still work incredibly well. The key track is “The Job,” and it’ll be a nice addition to your workout/running mix.