March 2019 Media Consumption Round-Up

 

This one’s a little late, but I’m hoping to do one of these each month from now. As you can see from below, this has been a very reading-heavy month. That’s a good thing since reading is always the thing I want to do the most of (followed by watching films and listening to music). The London Library’s really opened up a whole world of wonderful books to read.

Books

Round the Fire Stories

I wrote a review of Doyle’s short stories (minus Holmes) here.

The New Testament: A Translation

I also read The New Testament this month. It’s a weird collection of books (the ones left out are weirder, however). I wrote about it here.

Nicholas Nickleby

This is not one of my favourite Dickens novels, but neither is it terrible. I wrote about it here.

Charles Bukowski

This is the biography of Bukowski by David Stephen Calonne. It’s workmanlike rather than inspiring, but gives a certain insight into an intriguing (and often rather problematic) poet.

The Waste Land and Other Poems

If you’ve read any selection of my posts recently, you’ll have noted that quite a lot of them come back to this poem one way or another. I wrote about it here.

The Cambridge Companion to The Waste Land

As above. This was one of my first Cambridge Companion books, though, and I really enjoyed it. The fact it’s just a series of essays on the subject at hand makes it easy to dip in and out of. My suspicion is that they’re mainly written for undergraduates to be able to quote at least 3-4 essays in anything they’re writing without having to read many books, but all I’ve found so far have had high-quality essays from multiple viewpoints.

Apollo

A comic on the Apollo moon landings. I wrote about it here.

From Ritual To Romance

Mentioned in Eliot’s notes to The Waste Land, I wrote about it here.

TS Eliot and the Lay Reader

A rather idiosyncratic, but enjoyable view on all of Eliot’s writing. I wrote about it here.

Guns, Germs and Steel

When I read this I assumed it was relatively recent, but in fact it’s about 20 years old. Basically, it’s a broad sweep of human history showing how the particular features of various human groups owes a great deal to their geography.

It’s A Don’s Life

I’ve been reading a fair amount of Mary Beard recently. This is just a collection of posts from her excellent It’s A Don’s Life blog, but if you’ve never really read it before (as I hadn’t) this is a good place to start.

Four Quartets

More Eliot. These are essentially the last four poems he wrote (before moving on to verse plays that I find less satisfying). They’re beautiful and intricate philosophical reflections on time and being and reward multiple re-readings. I also enjoyed Ralph Fiennes’s reading of them on Audible.

The Cambridge Companion to T.S. Eliot

I think of the two, this broader look at Eliot’s career is more enjoyable than the Cambridge Companion just to the Waste Land.

Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough

This is Wittgenstein’s take on Frazer’s Golden Bough and I wrote about it here.

I Capture the Castle

I’d heard various people say this was their favourite novel, so I thought I should see what I made of it. It’s lovely, and I suspect if I was a bit younger when I first read it, it might of been one of my favourites too.

The Power of Art

Simon Schama’s book to accompany the TV series of a few years ago. As with a lot Schama’s other works, it’s full of bold assertions about the inner motivations of its key players, but it’s a style I enjoy and his passion for the art in question is clearly deep.

Crome Yellow

Aldous Huxley’s debut that I wrote about here.

Women & Power: A Manifesto

More Mary Beard, I wrote about this one here.

How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy

A book by Julian Baggini trying to right the wrong that western philosophy departments thinks there’s no thinking going on outside the west. It’s a very commendable attempt, but I rarely found it hugely illuminating or exciting. I hope many more follow in his footsteps, however.

Films

The Kindergarten Teacher

A strange, but haunting film. I wrote about it here.

Everybody Knows

A compelling thriller with excellent central performances. Returning home for a wedding, a family explore old wounds and jealousies.

Us

Part horror, part social commentary, all excellent. I wrote about it here.

Music

Shura

When I first discovered Shura’s electro-pop I thought she was a new artist. In fact, the English singer been releasing records for a few years. Her album from 2016, Nothing’s Real is great, as is her new single, BKLYNLDN. I recommend trying out What’s It Gonna Be and 2Shy.

Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom

Allison Miller’s is an outstanding drummer. Often drummer-led albums can be rather niche and tedious. This album certainly leads on rhythm, and showcases Miller’s talent, but it’s full of great tunes.

LCD Soundsystem Electric Lady Sessions

LCD Soundsystem in their live-band format perform hits mostly from the last album, but a few others too. Added to that, the cover of Chic’s I Want Your Love is joyous.

The National

There’s a new album brewing, coming in May, the singles You Had Your Soul With You and Light Years bode well (the latter has a particularly good video).

Helado Negro

I’ve really enjoyed Running by Helado Negro. Haven’t listened through the album yet, but it’s on the list.

Podcasts

Broken Record

Malcolm Gladwell and Rick Rubin’s series interviewing people in the music industry has started a new series. The episodes interviewing Questlove and David Byrne are two of the best music-related podcasts in the last year.

Brady Heywood Podcast on Apollo 13

I wrote about this excellent series on what went wrong with Apollo 13 here.

TV

Queer Eye

I don’t have many ground-breaking TV recommendations because I haven’t been watching it much, but Queer Eye remains one of the best pieces of reality TV ever made. High quality, touching and genuinely heartwarming.

This Time with Alan Partridge

On the other end of the scale, this is some of the most excruciating TV you can watch. It’s laser-guided uncomfortableness.

(Photo by Pinho . on Unsplash)

Us

 

This review contains spoilers to the plot of Us. Watch Us first before reading because it’s an excellent film.


I’m going to run through what I think is my main interpretation of Us first, because I think it’s an extremely clever film, and although I think Baudrillard’s notions permeate the work, the clear analogy running through the work is worth exploring.

There’s a sense in which each of the alternative family are, as the title would suggest, Us, but our worst sides. For example, whereas Jason plays with a toy that makes sparks, his alternative, Pluto (named for the ruler of the underworld) is a pyromaniac with a burned face. These alternatives represent what we would do if unconstrained. As such what holds us back from the ‘darkness of humanity’ as Peele himself puts it, is the social ties, the need we have to put on a mask to interact with others. If, like in America (Us vs ‘U.S.’) at the moment, these masks begin to drop, violence and mayhem will ensue. In this conception both the underground and overground alternatives are both real, held in tension by the image we choose to portray to others. Peele is suggesting (as all horror films do, to some degree) that what is most terrifying is ourselves.

Both Jason and Pluto wear masks, but the key thing that the film is exploring is that we all wear masks. Rather than attacking this as being something terrible and we need to become our ‘true’ selves, I believe the film is saying that these masks have a value. Indeed, towards the end of the film, Jason and Zora exchange a brief moment where, in a moment of terror, he puts on his (Chewbacca) mask. She looks at him as if to say ‘why?’, his gestured retort seems to say ‘why not, it comforts me?’ and she accepts this.


In 1981, Jean Baudrillard published a book, known in English as Simulacra and Simulation. Like most Baudrillard, getting at all aspects of his ideas is not easy but I’ll give a very quick run-through here because it’s important for the rest of what I’d like to suggest.

Simulacra are copies of things where either the original never existed, or where the original at least no longer exists. Baudrillard opens with what he claims to be a quote from Ecclesiastes:

The simulacrum is never what hides the truth – it is truth that hides the fact there is none.

The simulacrum is true.

Baudrillard suggests that societies progress through stages in which we take reality:

  1. Firstly we reproduce it with a sign that is a faithful copy
  2. Next, we come to believe that the sign is an unfaithful copy. Signs no longer seem to reveal reality to us, but they at least suggest a reality is still there, even if the sign fails to capture it fully.
  3. By the third stage, the sign pretends to be a faithful copy, but there is no original. Signs and images still claim to represent something real, but there is no underlying reality that they’re referring to.
  4. In the fourth stage, this simulacrum has no relationship to reality whatsoever – signs just refer to other signs creating a space in which everything only exists in relation to something else. He called this stage the hyperreal. In this stage, any reference to reality is perceived as being oversentimental or naïve.

Baudrillard contends that we went through three historical stages that match these. Premodern times linked the real and the sign, in the Industrial Age, mass reproduction led to copies of items, making commodities which imitate reality. Finally, the post modern age, the simulacrum ‘wins out’ as it were and the relationship between reality and representation vanishes. Everything is a simulation.

I felt that it was useful to give a relatively quick run through the philosophy of the book, but I got a fair amount of it from the rather good Wikipedia page, so if you’d like to read some more about it, I’d start there rather than trying to delve into the book itself which is on the verge of being incomprehensible even if, like me, you’ve got a degree in Philosophy.

Before we return to Us, I’d like to mention that these ideas were explored in 1999’s The Matrix. Indeed, a rather beautiful edition of Simulacra and Simulation is where Neo stores his computer discs. In the Matrix, it transpires that the ‘real world’ that Neo lives in is, in fact, a simulation because robots have decided that humans make good batteries. One reading of The Matrix is, therefore, that the world Neo is escaping by taking the red pill is actually equivalent to the postmodern world in which we live. Neo is in fact taking a journey back to a simpler time where signs and reality were more closely related.

8dsdo4vdf5511

Us bears a similarity to The Matrix in this respect. The alternative family that the Wilsons meet, simulates their existence in tunnels beneath the world, and like Baudrillard’s contention of a postmodern world, it is unclear quite whose world a simulation of the either, and thus, perhaps neither are truly ‘real’. The pun of the title queries who really is ‘Us’ in these scenario. Are we them, or are they us?

Added to this, though, the film also communicates a number of further interpretations or signs (added to the ones above) that are less related to Baudrillard in appearing to signify things in the real world (although, I guess Baudrillard would probably suggest the real world situations I’m about to describe are merely another collection of signs).

The film is also an expression of how society creates and feeds off a hidden class who operate out of sight of the middle and upper classes, but keep the world operating. The final two acts of the film, therefore, are like a revolution where the working class rise up and destroy their middle class equivalents.

Similarly, there’s an analogy with the American love of incarceration which, like the slavery it replaced, has created an entire group of humans living a shadow existence outside the freedoms we assume for ourselves. Adelaide spends a large amount of the film in chains, and although Peele has specifically said this film isn’t about race (and it certainly doesn’t need to be), he’s certainly making this allusion clear.

The film operates on all of these levels, questioning our notions of reality in a post-modern world, presenting a metaphor of our best and worst selves and how they interact, and speaks to the separation between classes and the incarcerated, all while presenting a genuinely creepy horror film. Quite the achievement.

The Kindergarten Teacher

In The Kindergarten Teacher, the titular character, Lisa, is played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Increasingly detached from her job and family, she finds a child in her class, five-year-old Jimmy, who appears to spontaneously produce poems while pacing the floor.

Jimmy’s seeming works of art allow her to relive the creative, bohemian life that she feels she never got to experience, but her fixation gradually becomes unhealthy and dangerous. The film also leaves us to decide for ourselves what this creative process Is. Is Jimmy really a budding poet? Is he just reciting poems from his uncle? Are these poems actually any good? Can he really be thought of as a creator at such a young age? If a five year old can create amazing poetry, then what is poetry itself?

Where the film itself is filled with ambiguity, Lisa’s insistence on Jimmy’s talent feels like it’s the only firm ground. Her belief in Jimmy increasingly causes her to destroy everything else around her.

It’s a film I’ve found hard to process. Gyllenhaal is outstanding, and the film itself is well-written, making for what amounts to a taught thriller about the odd topic of a pre-school poet. However, the film’s ability to project the deep discomfort Lisa feels about her own life, and the way that one follows the steps of her descent so closely, means that the relatively short running time is almost entirely excruciating. Sara Colangelo has made a film which pulls the audience into Lisa’s loss of grounding in a very uncomfortable way.

Although a film I’m not sure if I ever want to revisit it’s stuck with me in a way few films can, and is well worth watching.

Landscape, Performance and Death in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a compendium film from the Coen Brothers. No characters reoccur in the six sections, but entwined throughout are three themes that I am going to write about here: landscape, performance and death.

This is full of spoilers, so I recommend that you read it after watching the film. It’s available on Netflix right now.

The film opens with a wide shot with Buster (Tim Blake Nelson) himself singing riding a horse. Across all of the six sections, the film is set in a broad, harsh landscape. A landscape that influences and drives the plot. It’s also a film about performance. Buster himself is a singer, and he says this singing “never fails to ease my mind”. But minds are not eased in this film, because everything leads back to death one way or another. In this film, no character is safe and every character is touched by death sooner or later. Coen Brothers films all have this dark edge, but death is not the constant companion in most as it is here.

Buster is no stranger to death. He shoots dead out an entire bar-room of patrons over an insult. In the next bar, he joins a card game, but refuses to play the dead man’s hand (two aces, two eights, held by Wild Bill Hickok when he was shot dead). This results in another shooting, in which, unarmed, Buster kills his opponent (Clancy Brown’s Curly Joe). Buster finally meets his end at the hands of a new, singing, contender – equally skilled, equally stylish, equally charismatic, and Buster is sent flying to the afterlife. Even this opening chapter sees almost a dozen deaths. It’s a theme that comes back through all subsequent sections.

So here, in the first of six stories we have all the key elements that are going to tie this story together. Huge American western landscapes, which influence the lives and decisions of characters, a harsh life being spent in performance, full of artifice and ending abruptly in death.

Landscape

The western genre, and American history, are both about the untamed land lying to the west, and all of the stories play with this. The land is huge, as in the opening shot before Buster appears on screen. It seems unoccupied, but Native Americans make regular appearances in the film and are themselves forces of nature – almost part of the landscape itself. The land can be hot and unforgiving, as in Near Algodones, the second section, or brushed in forest and snow as in the third, Meal Ticket. Both of these landscapes cause characters to make decisions, especially in the latter where the lack of food leads Liam Neeson’s impresario to desperate measures.

the_ballad_of_buster_scruggs_tom_waits_courtesy_netflix

In All Gold Canyon, Tom Waits’s prospector is in regular discussion with nature, singing and shouting as a lonely figure in the huge and seemingly empty landscape, searching throughout it for a speck of gold. In the penultimate story, The Gal Who Got Rattled, the characters are all progressing west across the vast prairie to Oregon. The inability to survive without support in this landscape drives the two lead characters together – one out of concern for other, one out of necessity when faced with the journey alone.

Performance

Each story has a key element of performance. Buster Scruggs is a singer from the very opening shot, and every movement he makes is one of a performer. When he kills opponent, Curly Joe, he gets the whole bar to join in a song to celebrate. Buster kills Curly Joe’s brother (Danny McCarthy) by looking back at him in a mirror, both showing off and pointing to Buster’s irrepressible narcissism. This narcissism, and singing, performing strut is taken over by Buster’s killer (‘Frenchman’ – David Krumholtz) who becomes the next legend as the section ends. “You can’t be top dog forever,” as Buster says.

This notion of performance centres on the Meal Ticket story whose armless, legless performer repeats his show nightly for money to keep him and his impresario fed and warm. The snippets of the pieces performed by “Harrison the Wigless Thrush” (Harry Melling) reflect their existence. Harrison and the impresario are the “traveller”s from Shelley’s Ozymandias, they take the roles of Cain and Abel and the Gettysburg Address both places the story in American history, and is connected to the constant theme of death. However, it’s the finale, as the money is collected of Prospero’s speech to close The Tempest that speaks both to this tale and the wider film. This speech is regarded as Shakespeare’s own retirement speech, and finishes with the line “we are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep”. It’s the soliloquy that finishes a play, a career, and life, and Harrison’s own life is soon to be rounded, violently, with a sleep of its own.

The fact that Harrison is replaced by a counting chicken (the prospector wants to know if birds can count: seemingly, yes) could be seen as a comment on the vapidity of the audience, but another way of seeing it is as showing the absurdity of life. Neither is a particular comfort, but both reflect the godless, absurd setting of the film.

In The Gal Who Got Rattled, we see the ‘performance’ of two lovers getting to know one another, ready to start their new life together. We see a dance, acting as a prefiguring of their wedding dance, with a man putting on a show, dancing with a mannequin (a ‘puppeteer’ in the credits, however, as the film will soon show, Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) is accurately represented by the lifeless puppet in this dance.

In The Mortal Remains, each character is entertaining one another. The singing of the bounty hunters, the story of the trapper, the philosophy of the Frenchman (Saul Rubinek) and the religion of the lady (Tyne Daly) are all their contribution to this final journey. This is also the story-telling and singing of a wake, gathered around (or in this case below) the mortal remains of the title. But it’s also a journey to the underworld – people performing for each other for a final time as they reflect on life for a final time.

Death

Life is short and cheap in this film. Buster wipes out an entire barroom of patrons, then a card player and his brother before being killed himself, singing as he floats to heaven on angel’s wings. The bank robber (James Franco) of the second section is hanged, twice (turning as he does the second time to his neighbour and asking “is this your first time?”) the second time successfully, staring into the eyes of a ‘pretty girl’ in front of him. The impresario kills his performer having replaced him with a counting chicken, and the prospector of part three is seemingly killed before actually killing the attempted murderer because the bullet “didn’t hit nothing important”. In part three, to save herself from a worse death after being captured by Indians, Alice kills herself.

https---blogs-images.forbes.com-danidiplacido-files-2018-11-The_Ballad_of_Buster_Scruggs-07-1200x649

All of these reflections on death are brought together In the final section – acting as a wake and journey to the underworld rolled into one. Death is an ever-present character both figuratively and literally with the body on the roof of the coach. The coach itself won’t halt when requested as though it is the unstoppable passage to the afterlife. The lady in the carriage is rejoining her husband after three years but since she’s in mourning dress it suggests she is following him after his death. The bounty hunters (Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson) sitting opposite call themselves “reapers” and “harvesters of souls” and all of the five of them try to make sense of life.

Each can only consider people from their own subjective experience. For the trapper (Chelcie Ross) this means people are like the ferrets he catches. For the bounty hunters they try to understand people from the moment of death (with little success) and the religious mourning woman believes that people are either sinning or upright (reflecting the ‘dead or alive’ of the bounty hunter’s job). The Frenchman is the only one to take a step back and question philosophically whether we can ever truly know a person, or whether they love us from this subjective position.

All of this discussion is the deep reflection of the mourners at a wake, sharing stories, songs, philosophy and experience as they try to make sense of life. In the film, as in life, no final answer is given.

Therefore, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a film about the deepest notions of life. The landscape becomes the world we live in. Huge and terrifying like Hobbes’s state of nature, but constant and beautiful at the same time. The only thing that keeps us going is performance: singing, dancing, storytelling, poetry, theatre. In this harsh world, it’s the only thing we can use to make any sense of our existence before our life too is rounded with a sleep.

Recognition and Alienation in They Shall Not Grow Old

There’s a moment in Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, where the screen expands from the familiar black and white century-old 4:3 ratio to a modern, colour 16:9 ratio. It’s a key moment in the film, where the shroud of familiar alienation from First World War footage is removed and for the first time we can recognise these young men as they were.

The film consistently plays with this familiarity and alienation throughout. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to think how frustrating it would be to only have one flavour of jam (plum and apple was regularly the only choice), but however much cleaned, coloured footage we see, the visceral and terrifying nature of the trenches still remains out of grasp. One of the voices describe them as “one of the most desolate places on earth” and thankfully most of us are unfamiliar with the ever-present stench of the rotting human flesh that many describe. Indeed, these trenches were so horrifying and terrifying for those involved that it changed the very meaning of the word ‘horror’.

It seems relatively easy to put ourselves in the place of recruiting officers trying to fill as many places as possible, but thankfully our modern ears are shocked by the repeated assertions of those officers telling 14-17 year olds to walk outside and come back in, pretending to be 18. The fact this means that many of the soldiers were only 18 at the *end* of the war. There’s a common refrain of how today’s youth are coddled, but the fact a majority today’s western adults would try and protect a 14 year old child from fighting a war seems an improvement.

The theme of recognition and alienation applies across no-man’s land as well. For groups of people who have spent many years shooting huge explosives at each other, the footage of them actually meeting, when Germans are captured, is another shock. There’s no animosity in this footage at all (accepting that it was unlikely any mistreatment or animosity was unlikely to be caught on film). Soldiers from both sides play and joke with each other. This mysterious, terrifying ‘other’ who may have shot a friend’s head off yesterday, today turns out to be just like them – a small, frightened youth. The soldiers talk of how they “admired and respected” their opponents and discussed with them “how useless war was and why it had to happen.” They constantly play with each other’s hats as though realising that it’s only the uniform that sets them apart.

p06qv2r8

The First World War is an appropriate conflict for this sort of treatment. In the film some describe the arrival at Calais, the changes of expression from excitement to fear and the first sound of a shell close up. ‘Close up’ is key here, because reports from the time suggest that the shelling could be heard from Dover, perhaps even London. However, unlike the Second World War, where many were familiar with the horrors of regular bombing, the First did not directly touch those who stayed at home.

The war seemed distant for many in the UK – it was in Europe, a place that many would not have visited, especially not at 14, but it was taking place a few hours’s journey away. Brookes’s “corner of a foreign field” could theoretically have been visited in a day. It was physically near, and yet still, unmistakably ‘foreign’ in so many ways.

On their return to the UK, soldiers felt this alienation, but this time with the country they had departed from up to four years previously. Signs went up saying “No ex servicemen need apply”. Like many service personnel today, they returned to a country that did not, indeed, could not, understand what they had been through. War is, thankfully, alien to those who have not experienced it. They Shall Not Grow old does an astonishing job of giving us a sense of recognition through time, but this final step of giving a deep understanding what it is like to experience war remains, thankfully, outside its grasp.

The Sound Design of Magic in the Harry Potter Films

Another excellent video from Evan Puschak, this time on how the various filmmakers tackled the issue of making plausible sounds for magic spells in Harry Potter.

One thing this draws attention to is the fact that Alfonso Cuarón makes significant changes after the first two films when he directs the sounds of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, something I’d never consciously noted before.

Corruption and Redemption in Widows

Widows is the fourth film by director Steve McQueen, following 2013’s Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave. Although a heist film based on Lynda La Plante’s 1983 ITV series, it’s no less intelligent than its predecessor and weaves issues of corruption, race and gender politics in to an engrossing and captivating thriller.

The film introduces the main characters each in relation to the man whose loss will make them the widows of the title. The shots are interspersed with the heist that kills the men. At the same time, these scenes introduce the weaknesses of the respective men. Henry is a bank robber, obsessed with money; Florek beats up his wife between robberies and Carlos is a hopeless gambler who’s been taking his wife’s shop rental money to pay gambling debts.

One of the more shocking elements of this opening is that both Liam Neeson’s Henry Rawlings and Jon Bernthal’s Florek are dispatched in the opening minutes. Neeson appears in multiple subsequent flashbacks, but it’s clear that the widows themselves are the focus.

All three of the ‘widows’ face problems related to their gender and the men in their life. Veronica (Viola Davis) is dragged into the life of her robber husband, Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), is recovering from domestic violence and needs to show that she is a smart, resourceful woman. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) is a business owner whose living is destroyed by controlling, gambling, husband. She finds it difficult to live as single mother – similar to her babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo) – who has to take any work she can get to make ends meet. Belle also works in a salon whose successful business is at the whim of a local, male, politician.

However, It’s the seeming weaknesses of the women that come to be their greatest strengths. In one scene, Alice notices a woman and her child at a gun show, and starts telling a story that’s actually true about how she had been controlled by her husband, but pretending to be a Russian. In doing so she persuades the women to help her buy guns for the heist. When Alice has bought the guns, she walks out of the gun show with guns and a hot dog – almost showing her acceptance into American culture when she’s been successful. She gradually becomes confident that she will be able to “get wherever I need to go.”

In some ways this is a stereotypical heist film. The first act shows us the impetus and the plan being put together. At times this act appears like it’s focusing more on character than plot, but as the film progresses it’s clear that this is far from true and each seed planted is like Checkov’s gun. Act two shows the gang being brought together, often because of a distinct lack of alternative options, and in the final 20 minutes, we see the heist being carried and its aftermath. And yet, this is all done with such depth of character from an outstanding cast that it’s far from a usual heist film.

Veronica Rawlings’s grief for her husband, Henry, is shown through her being represented in reflections – those of the windows of her apartment, or in her dressing room. As though the death has made her incomplete. The reflections also give insight into her consideration of her self-image and who she is becoming. In her grief, she’s haunted by Henry in her thoughts and dreams and often through a notebook she discovers that outlines the future heist. To most she’s hard-hearted (with a “stick up her butt”, as Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) puts it. But in private she’s broken and scared, being dragged from her life as the head of a teacher’s union into this dark and unknown world. She relies on her focus on the task at hand to keep her going: “We have a lot to do – crying isn’t on the list”.

widows 2Political corruption in the film is represented by two generations of Mulligans. Tom, played by Robert Duvall, is a racist alderman, disgusted by the changing demographics of the Chicago neighbourhood he’s been leading. He tells his son Jack “I don’t want you to be the first Mulligan to lose to a n*gger”. Jack distances himself this racism, however one a scene we hear the audio from outside the car, seeing only the reflections on the outside window, as though a hot microphone has been left recording the conversation. Within the car he starts questioning his wife, Siobhan, on whether she has ever “slept with a black guy” showing the racism has made its way down the generations.

Jack Mulligan is facing a black upstart, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who he meets in the early stages of the film, with the hopes of getting him to withdraw. Jamal is not interested only in the salary of the role, stated as $104,000 – his brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) points out they could “make more than that in a week”. Jamal instead sees the fact that he could use the role to leverage much more money than that, following the footsteps of his white predecessors.

A constant question of the film is how much Veronica is corrupted by the position in which she finds herself. It’s made very clear that she’s stealing the money not out of a sense of greed, but necessity – something the other widows reflect. However, when she meets a former associate of her husband, Bobby Welsh (Kevin J. O’Connor), he suggest she give up the notebook itself, using the biblical phrase that she should “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”. But the question remains – can the widows keep their putative purity whilst engaging in this messy business?

The notion of purity, redemption, and religious imagery returns regularly to the film. Aside from Bobby’s phrasing, the politicians fight over the backing of a prominent local preacher, and Jamal’s headquarters is a former church, with two massive crucifixes above him – one wooden, one in the lights in the ceiling. Again, the decisions of all characters are compared to what is right and correct (and generally found wanting) and the church is no refuge from the prevalent corruption.

The work of director of photography, Sean Bobbitt is outstanding. In one scene, Daniel Kaluuya’s menacing Jatemme deals with two rapping gang members in a gym while the camera circles him as though it’s marking him in a game of basketball. When the local preacher is introduced, however, the camera stays locked to his face for minutes while he delivers his sermon.

The writing, by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen is excellent. Characters reveal their intentions through word and action, but never is there a moment where the plot is driven by characters spouting exposition at each other – something that most heist films find it hard to avoid. Each character feels real and driven by clear motivations; the audience is left to make up their own mind about who deserves support. Every character is a victim of history, but some deal with this better than others.

The film reminded me of The Wire: almost all of the characters are trapped by circumstance. However, what Tom Mulligan is the one that states the true message in a heated discussion with his son: “What I’ve learned is that you reap what you sow.”