‘WIDOWS’ Subverts Heist Movie Expectations with Searing Performances, Artful Direction

There’s a cold chill that hangs in the air of Widows, the collaboration between brooding auteur Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) and celebrated novelist and Hollywood hot ticket item Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”, “Sharp Objects”). Theirs is a chilly heist movie, one that draws equally from modern American racism (whose roots run deep here) and political paranoia; a feature that’s marked by events of extreme brutality and cold calculation. A far cry from the slick heist movies born of Steven Soderbergh, Edgar Wright, or Spike Lee, Widows is still complete with its share of double-crosses, smart aleck maneuverings, and bone-chattering suspense. It’s not a total top-to-bottom revision of the traditional heist flick but their offering is an artful and potent reworking of the established formula.  Read More


Out in Theaters: DARK PLACES

The charge for any movie based upon a popular novel is two-fold. First, they must remain  faithful to the source material. You can’t have a writer bandying critical alterations in plot or character, lest they invite the chagrin of a million swarming fanboys, ready with pitchforks and sub-reddit comments. Secondly, they must inject some modicum of vision into the material. To transform a novel into a film without tact or some place of purpose is to present an audience with a run-down of in-book events without much-needed personality or intent. Think James Franco adapting Faulkner or Angelina Jolie taking on “Unbroken”. They failed because they were “adaptations” and nothing more; they changed the medium, but lost the soul. Read More


Out in Theaters: GONE GIRL

I knew a guy in college who was accused of rape. He was a few years older than me and confided the tale over a joint and some cheap whiskey. The case didn’t go to court nor did he see the inside of a jail cell but the accusation alone stood as a scarlet letter. He became a bit of a pariah; an un-dateable. His side of the story admittedly painted a dubious picture – both of them were drinking, they fooled around, two weeks later it was reported as a rape – but I nonetheless felt uncomfortable swilling from the same bottle of Seagram’s 7 as him.

Like he had unintentionally Inceptioned me, the inkling of suspicion was planted, the possibility that this guy had physically and emotionally scarred a woman swarmed my mind and grew into an unpleasant garden of doubt. It almost didn’t matter who was guilty. The blood was in the water. So what if he were innocent? The idea had still taken hold. So what if all it took to break a man down to the studs was one simple, four-letter word? Tawana Brawley set a judicial precedent with her 1988 court case of such a nature, Crystal Mangum and the Duke Lacrosse Team proved such an occurrence was no novelty. You better believe that acquitted or no, none of those chums are going to be the next contestant on The Bachelor. And then what if we dial that up to murder? How many Grand Trial Juries see a case in which a wife is murdered and immediately assume the husband’s involvement? Gone Girl harnesses that destructive power of accusation, plants us in the eye of the storm and dares its audience to keep up with each and every turn, no matter how subtle or seemingly easy to dismiss. Brace for impact, it’s a hell of a ride.


Adapted from Gillian Flynn‘s Best Seller of the same name, Gone Girl is a movie I knew I was going to love from the opening credits, which is no short surprise for movie maestro David Fincher. The names of associated talent blip in bright white words to fade unnaturally quickly from focus. They supernova. In the background, staccato shots of perfectly framed suburban residences attack the audience, underscored by Trent Reznor‘s pulsing, foggy soundtrack. Mimicking the volcanic rumble of a natural disaster or, worse yet, demons trying to escape from hell, his gothic, almost science fiction-like soundscape rolls over all like a fiery wave. As if on a timer, the blue house with white trim jolts to a four-bedroom with a red door. A low synth note sustains. Suburbia never looked so menacing.

Day one, morning of. Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) enters a bar; his bar; The Bar. It’s only 11 but he fixes a whiskey, neat. Sister Margo, played with gusto by Carrie Coon, joins him. It’s his fifth anniversary. The “wood” year. Appropriate seeing that’s what his marriage now resembles. Margo makes disparaging remarks. Nick grants them. His wife’s a bitch. “Amazing Amy” is a farce.


A side story breaks in without warning. In swooping penmanship, Amy’s (Rosamund Pike) diary takes us back in time. In flashback, life looks promising. A storybook. Reznor’s tracks get playful, as if they’re played on a kiddy xylophone. Nick and Amy spar verbally, the flirtation of the intelligentsia, before kissing in a sugar storm. Their meeting is an Ivy League daydream. As a girl, Amy’s life had been massaged and melded into a popular kid’s series penned by her mother, “Amazing Amy”. Amy’s amazing counterpart always made the varsity team. She was a shoe-in for valedictorian. She had a dog because it made her relatable. Amazing Amy was a tough act to follow. But in the potpourri of a sugar storm, the crusty side of life is easy enough to forget.

Day one, afternoon. Nick returns home to find a bouquet of smashed glass and no Amy. After finding a trace of blood splatter, Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) is quick to rule this a missing persons case. The hunt for Amazing Amy begins. As the vigil lights spark, the curtain comes up on Amy’s ill-standing in the community. Even before her disappearance, she was a ghost. A New Yorker with her nose too high in the air to notice the Missouri (she pronounces the word startlingly like “misery”) locals around her. Nick registers as unfazed to the social community at large with TV personalities and town’s people alike taking turns to knock his untimely playboy grins and unbefitting calm.


By Day Seven, the incident has unraveled into a full scale media circus and Fincher’s direction chases the rabbit down the hole. Nick’s wrapped up in a chess game played with power sex and won by carnal obliteration. Staring into the furtive abyss of the death sentence, Nick associates with a high status defense lawyer, played by a surprisingly great Tyler Perry, as he tries to mount a case that goes beyond just proving he didn’t kill his wife. In the age of social networking, you also have to win Twitter. The murderer becomes a Bachelor contestant. Womankind nationwide have to get their jollies if he stands a chance at an acquittal. Nick’s a pawn, moved unwittingly across the board by a mastermind the likes of Bobby Fisher and Fincher knows exactly when, where and how much to show. Just watching is stressful. Alleviating yourself by sucking down Coca-Cola or smacking popcorn is self-defeating. You don’t even dare to take a bathroom break.   

In large part thanks to the massively enticing performances, Gone Girl threatens to slack your jaw so low it could fall off. Though unlikely to see much award fanfare, the oft underrated Ben Affleck is perfectly on mark. He’s not the hero you want but he’s the one Fincher’s picture deserves. Above him, below him and all around him, Rosamund Pike is an explosion. She’s breathtaking. She’s the remnants of a shattered China Doll, self-repairing into a new, frightening form. Like Chucky. She’s brilliant. She’s my current front runner for Best Actress. If not at the Oscars, in my own awards. A scene in which Amy undergoes a fluid-soaked transformation is as startling as it is perfect. The phoenix rises from the ashes. The devil is in the details. Fincher’s camera eats it up like pudding. Like everything else in her life, Amy owns her scenes.


Let’s break down one bit in particular. Ex-boyfriend Neil Patrick Harris fantasizes about octopus and scrabble on the Greece coastline. Like Amy, the octopus feeds through a hidden maw. A cavernous web of teeth. Impossible to predict, its arms are a slippery tangle of deception. Before you even see the octopus coming, you disappear in their cloud of ink. They’re inconspicuous predators. Similarly, the best Scrabble players can find meaning in a mess. In that cloud of ink, they thrive. They whip things to their advantage, trading up for better letters. For better standing. For a better Amy. Octopus and scrabble. His fantasy is his undoing. He feeds right into Amy’s manipulative maw.

Gone Girl deals in accusations and historical gender circumstance. It’s a 21st century battle of the sexes; a tennis match played with grenades. Amy and Nick’s affair depends entirely upon existing gender roles. It festers because of the wobbly stature between mankind and womankind. It’s not feminist. It’s emasculating. It’s not progressive. It’s the end of times. It’s a pedagogical treatise on the anatomy of a broken marriage. Or maybe all marriage. Who can tell? And I guess that’s the point. It’s always going, going, gone (girl). David Fincher absolutely hits it out of the park. It’s one of the best, and darkest, visions he’s ever dished up. Always one step before the action, Fincher demands we race to catch up. Each shot ends just marginally too quickly. His vision is frantic by design. Things get lost in the dark that are never recovered. You just have to pretend along with it. Case in point, I never got to the bottom of that college guy’s story. And in the end, his reputation never really hinged on the truth at all. Just what people thought.


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