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‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ and ‘Widows’ Finds Barry Jenkins and Steve McQueen Heading in Different Directions

The Toronto International Film Festival hosted two new films from two of our most compelling directors—a turn toward pulp fiction from the director of ‘12 Years a Slave’ and a masterful James Baldwin adaptation from the ‘Moonlight’ auteur

Annapurna Pictures/Twentieth Century Fox/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

There’s a scene in Steve McQueen’s new heist thriller Widows—and whoever had “Steve McQueen’s new heist thriller” as a phrase that would be used in 2018 please collect your prize money—where a long-serving and corrupt Chicago alderman played by Robert Duvall gets in an argument with his wannabe neighborhood kingpin son Jack, portrayed by a perfectly coiffed and cast Colin Farrell. The younger man has directed his father’s attention to an expensive abstract canvas hanging on his office wall, which he brags about paying $50,000 for. “It’s art,” brags Farrell. “It’s wallpaper!” yells Duvall.

This rabbit/duck routine is funny stuff, and it’s also maybe the skeleton key to unlocking the intricate incongruities of a movie whose cinematography is suitable for framing, and yet whose artistic value is also very much in the eye of the beholder. One way to look at Widows is as the work of a virtuoso auteur unexpectedly infatuated by the pleasures of pulp; the other is as a commercial property elevated by its maker’s skill set into something that transcends its crowd-pleasing mandate. The possibility that it might be both things at once—a film of glossy surfaces belying real depth, a roll of wallpaper to hang in the Met—is the most exciting option of all, since with the exception of David Fincher—whom McQueen is connected to via Widows and Gone Girl screenwriter Gillian Flynn—they don’t really make ’em like that anymore.

Ultimately, I’m not sure that Widows aces this “best of both worlds” test, but it certainly passes, and McQueen deserves credit for finding a way to subordinate the most severe aspects of his style without fully capitulating to convention. The film’s opening shot, depicting an open-mouthed kiss between a middle-aged married couple played by Viola Davis and Liam Neeson, shows McQueen’s capacity to generate meaning and friction out of a few precisely arrayed elements: the familiarity of the actors leveraged against the intimacy of their make-out session; the luxuriousness of their king-sized bed, framed by the blinding whiteness of the sheets that contrasts against Davis’s skin and, in turn, reminds the viewer that interracial coupling is still absurdly rare in contemporary Hollywood entertainment. It’s stark, sexy, symbolic, and show-stopping all at once, even as it functions solely as a cold open. This is how you start a movie.

A longtime teacher who’s become accustomed to a high-rolling, high-rise-condo lifestyle that nevertheless only barely masks some deeper sadness, Davis’s Veronica is the film’s protagonist by default. In a smartly conceived and edited prologue, McQueen cuts between scenes of her domestic repose with husband Harry and the latter’s activities—understood, if not exactly sanctioned, by his wife—as a machine-gun-carrying bank robber. When Harry and his men get killed in a police ambush, Veronica and the other affiliated widows have to come to terms with not only their respective senses of personal tragedy and morality, but also the very concrete fallout of the men’s deaths. Before they died, Harry and his guys made off with $5 million, and there are interested parties trying to recoup it, including Jack’s new political rival Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) and his psychopathic lieutenant-slash-brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), both of whom have no compunction about terrorizing Veronica to get what they want.

There’s an awful lot of plot in Widows—carried over from British thriller specialist Lynda La Plante’s 1983 ITV series—and Flynn (who is as much a master of the form as LaPlante) has given McQueen the kind of sturdy, cast-iron narrative frame he needs to hang his set pieces, some of which betray the same show-off sensibility he cultivated in Shame and 12 Years a Slave. (A long-take sequence where Jatemme menaces a pair of underlings on a high school basketball court, the camera whirling around him, is like a run-on sentence awaiting a brutal but predictable exclamation point, which comes right on schedule.) Speed was not of the essence in McQueen’s previous films, which betrayed his rigorous fine arts background, but Widows really whips along. That’s because, as a screenwriter (and as a novelist) Flynn is allergic to drag. She’s at her best when working in short, broad strokes, and with so many principle characters in play here, including the other widows recruited by Veronica, the cut-to-the-chase approach is appropriate.

The downside of Flynn’s brisk style is that the potential exhilaration of watching a group of women freeing themselves from their previous identities while getting locked and loaded for action ends up feeling lopsided. Veronica’s arc is compelling, powered by Davis’s terse, internalized performance, and Elizabeth Debicki is excellent as the statuesque ex-moll Alice, who proves more resourceful than her trophy-girlfriend persona. But Michelle Rodriguez, whom you’d think would be up for this stuff via the Furious franchise, comes off as strangely vague. Broadway star Cynthia Erivo, who plays a ringer recruited through convoluted but amusing circumstances, is underused, reduced to a striking but superficial physical impression.

I’m also not sure that Flynn and McQueen manage to disguise the story’s big twists. There’s also a certain clumsiness to how the script tries to incorporate some loaded and topical political subtext into a story whose pleasures are primarily structural. Sometimes McQueen manages to balance momentum and contemplation, as he does in a wonderfully choreographed shot that traces the economic topography and racial hierarchy of an entire neighborhood while staying glued to the windshield of a moving car. Elsewhere, he strains for the kind of seriousness that he achieved (for me, to dubious effect) in his earlier work. Widows entertainment value is undeniable, and yet it’s fascinating mostly as a case study of a supremely talented filmmaker test-driving his sensibility through a new and in some ways more constrained creative habitat.

Where McQueen reroutes, Barry Jenkins doubles down on the kind of plangent, personal cinema that earned him the decade’s most unexpected Academy Award. Moonlight’s long and elegant shadow falls over If Beale Street Could Talk in a variety of ways. It’s always a bit tense for directors trying to follow up work that’s been received as an unqualified triumph. Jenkins’s decision to film a 1974 novel by James Baldwin—who was influential in Moonlight’s glancing, poetic style and alternately agonized and affirmative depiction of homosexuality—both lowers and increases the degree of difficulty. The risk is in translating a canonized work of modern American literature and inviting questions—and criticisms—about what is included, excluded, or reshaped. The advantage lies in the strength of the material and the grounding from which to further experiment with his rich, expressionist aesthetic.

One major switchover from Moonlight is from a male to a female subjectivity. Beale Street is narrated by 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne), who, as the story begins, has been impregnated by her boyfriend and childhood sweetheart Fonny (Canadian actor Stephan James). He’s recently been imprisoned for a crime he swears—and she believes—he did not commit. In an extended and quite purposefully theatrical opening sequence, she confesses her situation to her family, who receive the news with grace and love; the explanation to Fonny’s family—particularly his pious mother and sisters—does not go nearly so well. The contrast between Tish and Fonny’s bond and the tensions between their families signifies outward, less in the sense of Shakespearean star-cross’d lovers than as an example of subtle, class- and faith-based fissures and divisions within Harlem’s African American community.

My guess is that a lot of people—film critics, mostly—are either in the process of reading Baldwin’s novel or devoured it in order to better apprise Jenkins’s film. I’ll go on the record as saying that I haven’t read it, and that my knowledge of Baldwin is limited mostly to his essays. His The Devil Finds Work, from 1976, is one of the best volumes of film criticism of its era, particularly the section on The Exorcist, in which he deconstructs the film in terms of its racial subtext. I thus can’t say whether or not Beale Street’s precise sense of place honors Baldwin’s descriptions of New York in the 1970s, but the period detail is ultimately secondary to the director’s focused, rapturous faith in the power of faces to serve as their own miniature landscapes. Time and again, Jenkins returns to the probing close-ups that marked Moonlight and laid out the physical maturation and spiritual evolution of its protagonist. But where Chiron’s gaze was often directed at the audience—whether in confrontation or communion—the characters in Beale Street only have eyes for each other. Tish and Fonny’s bond is communicated more in the intensity of how they look at each other than what they say, which reflects Jenkins’s own strength as a visual storyteller. This, at least for me, outweighs his skills as a dramatist.

In terms of its framing and color palette, Beale Street is absolutely ravishing, and occasionally Jenkins throws in an unexpected bit of technique, like a split-screen sequence gently but unmistakably evoking the cool drive of ’70s crime thrillers, or the beautiful, slightly inscrutable digression featuring Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina King), who’s traveled to Puerto Rico as part of a desperate, quixotic attempt to help clear Fonny’s name. Trying on a wig in a hotel room, Sharon is a figure projecting protectiveness and vulnerability. As she hesitates over the decision to go through with her planned subterfuge—and the disguise that goes with it—Jenkins’s head-on portraiture juxtaposes suspense, character study, and some deeper, more ephemeral sense of sadness and grace. For whatever reason, it’s the moment that I can’t stop thinking about, even as it exists slightly outside the film’s story. I’d say that it’s this ability to make the potentially peripheral indelible that distinguishes Jenkins, and, somewhat contradictorily, shows why the choice to adapt Baldwin was so savvy. If Baldwin was a master of forceful, essayistic rhetoric—using words like rivets in iron-clad argumentation—Jenkins is apt to sew his insights into the lining of sequences. At his best—and much of Beale Street plays at that level—his effects seem woven out of phantom threads.

As far as the actors go, both Layne and James are remarkable camera subjects, but I was more taken by King—whose detailed, lived-in work is going to be received as her career peak—and also Brian Tyree Henry, whose cameo as Fonny’s gregarious but psychologically damaged friend Daniel couldn’t be further from his performance in Widows.

In McQueen’s film, Henry projects the pride (and avarice, and ambition, and power) of a self-made man who thinks he has it in him to topple his neighborhood’s white establishment. It’s tied to his role as one of the story’s villains, but it also gives him a life force. In Beale Street, though, Henry climbs inside the flayed, fragile skin of a man whose incarceration has humbled him, recasting his larger-than-life excesses (eating, drinking, smoking) as devastatingly tender coping mechanisms. Daniel is a counterpoint to Fonny’s self-possessed strength but also as a cautionary tale about what prison might do to him. That dread hangs over the film like a shroud.

That Jenkins has engineered Beale Street (via Baldwin) to signify beyond the ultimate outcome of Fonny’s criminal charge—just as Moonlight used Chiron’s experiences allegorically as well as dramatically—is apparent, and Jenkins saves his most sociologically eloquent composition for the finale. It’s a tableau that compresses a wealth of cultural, political, and spiritual commentary. I doubt I’ll see a better final shot this year, especially since its weaving of meanings has the immediate effect of making the viewer want to rewatch the movie as soon as possible.