Widows has an all-star cast, an Oscar-nominated director, and a best-selling novelist-turned screenwriter, so my expectations might have been turned up a bit too high. It follows a team of titular widows (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Dibecki) picking up the pieces in the wake of their husbands’ deaths. It seems their dearly departed spouses stole money from a local criminal who very much demands the sum returned. The women must enter into a criminal heist, using notes left behind by a dead hubby, to settle the debt and spare their lives. Widows is a higher caliber crime movie with notable texture given to a wide assortment of characters; even the villains are given small character touches to better flesh them out and feel more realized. There’s a concurrent election tying together different corrupt and criminal enterprises that widens the scope of the film into a grander scale. The characters and performances are the selling point of the movie and provide consistent entertainment. Davis (Fences) is the strong-willed linchpin of the group and I could watch her boss around people for hours. Dibecki (The Great Gatsby) has a nice turn as a trophy wife accustomed to being abused. The problem is that there might be too many characters. Rodriguez has far more significance in the first thirty minutes and then is put on ice. Likewise, Carrie Coon and Cynthia Erivo are hastily added when the plot requires something of them. That plot, adapted by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), proves to be the film’s biggest hindrance by the end. The second half plot turns seem to come from a schlockier version of this story, not the classier version we had been treated to beforehand. There are character decisions that baffle credulity and personal safety. The quality of the characters deserved a movie that could refrain from the hacky genre twists. McQueen’s precise camerawork is still alive and well and highlights tension and also moments of social commentary, like when we watch a car travel mere blocks from a rundown inner city neighborhood to a fancy gated residence. There’s a lot to like with Widows, and plenty to get excited about, but I wanted to like even more.
Nate’s Grade: B
In 1841, free black man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives in Saratoga Spring, New York, performing as a trained violinist. Some traveling performers offer him serious money if he’ll play with their circus act in Washington, D.C. Solomon bids goodbye to his family, never knowing he will not see them again for a dozen years. He’s kidnapped, imprisoned, and sold down South to a series of plantation owners. He insists he is a free man, but who will believe him? He’s a black man in chains, and frankly many people just do not care. He learns to adjust to the rules of his new life, finding some companionship with the fiery Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), and looking for a trusted source to mail a letter to Solomon’s family. It’s a life of daily terror and Solomon could be killed at any moment if word got out that he knew how to read and write.
12 Years a Slave is, as expected, a hard movie to watch at times but it is an essential movie to be seen. A friend of mine literally had this conversation with a movie patron (I wish I was only making this up):
Customer: “Yeah, I don’t think I’ll end up seeing 12 Years.”
Friend: “Oh. Well it is a hard movie to watch.”
Customer: “It’s not that. I’m just waiting for a movie that finally shows all the good slave owners doing nice things. It wasn’t all bad.”
This brief conversation exemplifies for me why a searing drama like 12 Years of a Slave is still vital in 21st century America. This is a slice of history that cannot be forgotten, but just as sinister is the amelioration of its cruelty. As time passes, and those with direct personal experience are long gone, then the mitigation begins, and you have ignorance consuming people who want to whitewash America’s original sin, like the above movie patron. I’ve even read, simply on message boards for this very film, a dubious prospect I admit, people arguing, “Can’t we just move on already?” and posing false equivalences like, “Well the poor Southerners who worked as indentured servants had it just as bad.” I swear I am not deliberately setting up a straw man argument, these are actual gripes people have. It’s as if acknowledging the totality of the horror of slavery is, in itself, some kind of insult to people today. It’s history and vital history that need not ever be forgotten or mitigated, and we need more films dealing with this subject.
There is zero equivalency to treating people as subhuman property, stripping them of all human rights and dignity, separating them from their families, beating them, raping them, murdering them without consequence, being punished for defending yourself, and kept in a constant state of terror where anything horrible can happen to you at any time without reason. Sorry slavery apologists, but even the notion of a “kindly slaver,” which the movie actually showcases, is erroneous. Whether they don’t beat their slaves as often or addressed them as people, slave owners are still profiting from the institution of slavery, and as such the notion of a “good slave owner” is antithetical to the very insidious nature of plainly owning another human being.
With all that said, 12 Years a Slave is an unflinching look at the cruel reality of slavery but one that demands to be seen. Director Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger) doesn’t pull his punches when it comes examining the unrelenting misery of slavery. There’s a whipping scene where he are in the safe position of focusing on the faces of those involved, studying their horror, but then McQueen has the camera turn around and you see, in graphic detail, the ravaged back of an innocent woman, the bloody result of every one of those whippings that we watched at a comfortable distance at first. This is a gory example, and the film is rather restrained when it comes to this aspect. This is not simply wallowing in sadism. Hollywood has yet to have a definitive film showcase the traumatic reality of slavery. 1997’s Amistad gave you glimpses, but most of Steven Spielberg’s movie was set in courtrooms arguing the philosophical nature of inherent rights. I wish they would remake the classic miniseries Roots; today’s TV landscape would be more permissible at showing the graphic terror of slavery than 1970s network television. With 12 Years a Slave, there are several uncomfortable moments that will make you gasp, but overall, while retrained on the gore, you feel the overall devastation of a slave’s predicament. Every moment of life was at the whims of another, and a victim could be trapped at every turn. Solomon is beaten soundly, and after he defends himself, he is rounded up to be lynched for his audacity. The aftermath is portrayed with stark tension, as Solomon is left hanging by a noose, his feet barely touching the muddied ground, trying to maintain his stance or else choke to death. And like the long takes in shame, McQueen’s camera just holds us there, trapping the audience in the same strenuous dilemma. The worst goes to Patsey, who is raped by her master and tormented by the master’s jealous wife. Both Solomon and Patsey are damned with every decision. By the end, Solomon is rescued and reunited with his family, but you can’t help but think about all those other unfortunate souls left to mire in slavery. For millions of them, there was no set limit to their desolation.
From a script standpoint, the movie flows more as a series of scenes rather than a traditional three-act arc. Writer John Ridley (Red Tails, Three Kings) works from Solomon’s own autobiography and does an incisive job of recreating the dimensions of mid-19th century America and the diseased mentality that accepted slavery. No more is this evident than in the frightening character of Edwin Epps, played with chilling absorption by Michael Fassbender, McQueen’s favorite collaborator. Epps is the kind of man who uses selective Scripture to justify his heinous actions. “A man can treat his property how he likes,” he quips with authority. Epps’ plantation is the worst along Solomon’s hellish odyssey. Fassbender (X-Men: First Class, Prometheus) spookily possesses Epps with great ardor, bringing out the snarling dangers of a man and his unsavory convictions. You’ll cringe over all the unwanted lascivious attention he gives to Patsey. He is a weak man through and through, but one who rages against others with his weaknesses. Fassbender is electric and keeps an audience extra alert when onscreen.
The acting is exceptional and infuriating. Ejiofor (Serenity, Salt) is commanding in a performance that stays with you. There is so much the man has to communicate with his eyes, those great orbs of his. Because of his circumstances he must hold back his ire, do what he can to make it another day, and his adjustment to the horrors of slavery are heartbreaking in itself. He must always be cautious, and when he dares to risk trusting a white man, we feel the same tremors of trepidation. There’s a great scene where Solomon, having been betrayed, has to come up with a credible alternative in the moment, with so much riding on his improvisation skills. It’s as suspenseful a moment as most Hollywood thrillers. The most heartbreaking performance, though, belong to Nyong’o, who is making her film debut in a major way. As Patsey, she symbolizes the mounting torment of unremitting victimization, a woman begging for death but too proud to make it happen. She has some intense monologues where not one word feels false. She is a broken woman struggling to find her footing, and watching her get abused in so many different ways is gut wrenching. She’s more than a martyr and Nyong’o shows you that.
Undeniably a good movie, there are still enough filmmaking choices that hold it back for me, and it all comes down to Solomon as the protagonist. The movie’s center was not as strong as it needed to be, and that is chiefly because our focal point, Solomon, is not well developed as a character. I feel pings of something approaching shame just bringing up the subject, but I must profess that Solomon is just not given much to do beyond suffer. As a free man, his adjustment to the absurd cruelty of the institution of slavery is meant to serve as an entry point for a modern audience, to have the safety of our lives suddenly stripped away. But if I had to describe Solomon as a character, I could say that he mostly vacillates between two modes: shock and solemn dignity (“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”). Strange that Patsey and Epps and even Epps’ wife are shown more dimension than the lead character. I’m not asking for Solomon to suddenly become a more active character and to rise up, Django Unchained-style; the context of slavery limits his opportunities to express himself. I just wanted more to this guy to separate him from the others suffering onscreen. And maybe, ultimately, that’s the point, that Solomon is, at heart, no different than any other slave. I can agree with that in philosophy, however, this approach also nullifies my ultimate investment in the protagonist. I feel for him because he suffers, I feel for him because I want him to find some semblance of justice (an impossible scenario given the circumstances, I know), and I feel for him because he is a good, honorable man. But I do not feel for him because I have an insight into the character of Solomon Northup. Fortunately, Ejiofor does a superb job of communicating as much as he can non-verbally. It just wasn’t enough for me.
To criticize 12 Years a Slave makes me feel awkward due to the seriousness of its subject matter, but hey, plenty of people make mediocre movies exploring Holocaust atrocities too (does anyone ever dare say, “Get over it,” to Holocaust survivors?). A horrifying historical subject does not give filmmakers cart blanche to slack when it comes to the important elements of storytelling, like story and characterization. 12 Years a Slave, by extension, is an exceptionally made movie with moments to make you wince and cry, gifted with powerful acting and sensitive direction. It is a searing recreation of the many facets of slavery, not just the sheer brutality of the beatings. You will understand on multiple levels the terrorism that was the institution of slavery, a vicious reality that should never be forgotten by a complacent citizenry. I can applaud 12 Years a Slave for its technical excellence, depth of performance, and historical accuracy; however, my personal investment in the protagonist was somewhat limited because Solomon Northup was not developed sufficiently enough. I certainly empathized with the man, but too often I felt like I was watching Solomon as a suffering symbol rather than a character. He’s obviously an interesting figure and I wanted more dimension. While not exactly rising to the level of a Schindler’s List for the institution of slavery (as some have dubbed), 12 Years a Slave is an enthralling movie in so many ways. It’s just a shame that an underdeveloped protagonist would hobble a film so otherwise worthy.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Most of the press about the seedy drama Shame has centered on the exhibition of star Michael Fassbender’s manhood, hence the NC-17 rating shackled to the film. Director/co-writer Steve McQueen, who teamed with Fassbender on the riveting Irish hunger-strike drama Hunger, decided against recutting his film for a more audience-inclusive R-rating. The Fassbender penis cannot be cut (draw your own circumcision conclusions). All of this fuss over seeing a penis onscreen seems a little ridiculous and immature. It just seems silly to censor a story about sex addiction by being coy with the appearance of the male anatomy. If they gave awards for onscreen penis performances, Harvey Keitel would have gotten a lifetime achievement award years ago. For all the physical nakedness on screen, when it comes to compelling characters and a story, that’s where Shame goes limp.
Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is a high-powered New York City businessman working in a high-powered office doing important business stuff. At least, that’s about the impression the movie gives. What makes Brandon tick, though, is the biological highs of giving in to his carnal desires. He is a sex addict. He has sex daily, some with women he picks up, some with prostitutes. He has a mighty stash of pornography and his work computer is filled to the brim with smut. Brandon’s world of empty physical pleasure is interrupted when his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), drops by to stay a while. She’s a needy, emotionally troubled woman, the kind of girl that gets into bed with her sex addict brother to feel some kind of warmth. Sissy drives Brandon mad, a madness that not even meaningless sex can cure. When sissy sleeps with Brandon’s married boss, his life becomes even more hectic. Perhaps brother and sister aren’t far off in their dysfunction.
What’s most shocking about Shame is not the explicit sex scenes or the full-frontal nudity (sigh, another reason to hate Fassbender) but what a shallow move this is. From beginning to end, everything in this movie is surface level. We don’t get to know anything about Brandon except for his expensive interior decorating. Ooo, he has a fine collection of vinyl, it makes perfect sense that he would be a sex addict now. The movie is filled with joyless sex, but just because there’s a lot of it, and the camera takes time to show Fassbender’s remorseful expressions mid-coitus, does not mean we have approached anything introspective or revealing. The most we learn about Brandon is that his longest relationship lasted four months. When Sissy comes to crash with her big bro it seems to unnerve the man. Why? Is it because her emotional neediness holds a mirror up to Brandon about his own broken behavior? Is it because she’s the only person in his life he has some relationship with and he wants to sever this, to cut him off completely from feeling anything? What has caused both of these people to become so dysfunctional? What about their parents? Your guess is as good as mine. McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady) cannot be bothered to shed light on their characters. This must have been the easiest movie in the world to write, as well as one that almost fulfills some sort of filmmaking exploitation dream (“No no, we’re doing a serious art movie. Now ladies in this scene you’ll be engaged in a threesome for an exhausting amount of screen time. Make sure to lick those nipples like you mean it”).
Because of the narrative shortcomings, the film can grow rather tedious. You never get a real sense of sexual addiction. Just because we watch a guy have sex with strangers, prostitutes, and watch a lot of porn does not mean we are any closer to understanding his urges and compulsions. There’s one brief moment where McQueen seems to communicate Brandon’s thinking, as the camera cuts between sensuous close-ups of a female officemate (Nicole Beharie). This technique is used too sparingly, though, and we’re left to just assume, “Oh, this guy has just gotta have it.” I would have greatly appreciated McQueen taking a more assertive role in communicating the mindset of his main character. Let’s get into his head, let’s see the world the way he does, let’s through the power of editing feel the gnawing craving for physical release. There is one terrific scene during the opening where Brandon and a woman on the subway seem to be communicating a shared desire simply through careful expressions and body configuration. It’s the one scene in Shame that feels like we’ve gotten a peak into Brandon’s world. Instead, the majority of Shame is far too cold and clinical, watching Brandon’s self-destructive behavior from a safe distance like we’re afraid of catching something. I get that all of the onscreen sex is supposed to be seen as unsexy, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t have followed Brandon’s point of view deeper. Just following a character’s POV is not the same as consent of their lifestyle. McQueen’s camera favors pretty long takes that voyeuristically eavesdrop on his characters, creating a sense of reality that can become ensnaring. I wanted to break free from a near five-minute take filmed from the back of Brandon and Sissy’s heads while they sit on a couch watching, in a strange moment of public domain access, a cartoon from the 1930s. McQueen’s film almost feels like a bait-and-switch bauble, promising the audience the seedy perversions of a man dominated by his uncontrollable desires, and then just delivering a guy who speaks little and jerks off at work a lot.
From an acting point of view, the lone saving grace of Shame, both Fassbender and Mulligan give captivating performances. Fassbender has had an incredibly varied year performance-wise, posing as Rochester, Magneto, and Carl Jung (one wonders what Freud would make of Brandon). The steely actor has a commanding presence and he’s able to reflect a burning intensity with the power of his eyes. Brandon, on the page, has about maybe 100 words of dialogue, so much is left to the actor’s fluid imagination, and Fassbender makes his character compelling to watch, at least for a while, despite the fact that the screenplay does not give him a compelling character to play. Mulligan (Drive, Never Let Me Go) is becoming rather adept at playing sad-eyed Kewpie doll women. Her character has a bit more to say in Shame, a girl trying to connect to the only family she has left, a brother who wishes to cut himself off from all feelings. The movie is at its best when these two are onscreen together. And for the horndogs out there, Mulligan matches Fassbender’s “I’ll show you mine” dare and delivers the full-frontal goods as well.
Shame is a sexually frank movie that seems curiously tight-lipped when it comes to character and plot. It’s filled with body parts but rarely do those parts assemble into a character. The movie is all surface, shallow and repetitive, and if that’s meant to communicate the self-loathing nature of its main character then what a strange mission that McQueen has achieved. The movie is flat, tedious, and distant, too timid to go deeper with its characters and their compulsions. I want to see Brandon’s personal and/or professional life suffer because of his addiction. I want to see the struggle to keep the urges at bay. I want to see Brandon hit rock bottom. I want to feel his desire to change. But we get none of this. Shame ruefully takes its narrative cue from Brandon, which means it’s a whole lot of nothing in between bouts of meaningless, empty sex.
Nate’s Grade: C