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The ambitious storytelling of ‘Widows’ and ‘The Favourite’ takes genre tropes to new places

The ambitious storytelling of ‘Widows’ and ‘The Favourite’ takes genre tropes to new places
Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki co-star in the more-than-a-heist-movie "Widows." (Suzanne Tenner/20th Century Fox via AP)

Last year, Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” refreshed the haunted-house genre with its Oscar-winning story about the terror wrought by a mansion full of well-disguised racists. In 2018, filmmakers deployed alien invasion and demonic possession tropes to frame family dramas “A Quiet Place” and “Hereditary,” while Luca Guadagnino, director of last year’s best picture nominee “Call Me by Your Name,” refashioned the 1977 gore fest “Suspiria” into an ambitious, 152-minute art house allegory.

But horror is hardly the only genre attracting ambitious storytellers these days. This season, Academy Award-winning actors and filmmakers enriched familiar formulas by offering audacious takes on the heist movie, the costume drama, the western and the renegade-detective thriller.

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In “Widows,” director Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) and co-writer Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) infuse the caper film template primarily by putting women in charge. Set in Chicago, the movie casts Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo as a gang of first-time bandits. Flynn says, “I wouldn't have signed on to write a male heist movie. In our very first meeting I told Steve, ‘I want to see what it looks like if you don't have a caregiver for your child when you're planning a heist. He liked these ideas of having women who are juggling kids, juggling lives, mothers-in-law, or in the case of Elizabeth’s character, Alice, a horrible mom.”

“Widows” also differs from the apolitical heist movie norm by marking class and income disparities and rooting its characters firmly in Chicago during a racially charged election. Flynn says, “Steve and I wanted to talk about modern issues in this movie, so we met with people in law enforcement, people in the community, we spoke to one of the law professors who helped get the Laquan McDonald [police shooting] videotape released. The [heist] genre gave us a great engine to pull our characters all the way through this ride, but for people who want to dig a little bit deeper, they can look at these other issues in ‘Widows’ and have something to talk about after the movie’s over.”

For nearly a century, the costume drama has occupied a prestigious niche defined by lofty rhetoric, gorgeous clothes and historically significant power plays. Director Yorgos Lanthimos' “The Favourite” disrupts those prim confines with pratfalls and profanity, contemporary touches and a rude royal advisor (Rachel Weisz), who informs 18th century Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) in the film's opening sequence: “You look like a badger.” That’s not even to mention the female power struggle and lesbian sex scenes.

From left to right, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone in "The Favourite."
From left to right, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone in "The Favourite." (Atsushi Nishijima / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corpo)

Producer Ed Guiney, who earlier worked with Lanthimos on his artfully surreal movies “Dogtooth” and “The Lobster,” says, “We very much wanted to make a period film that didn’t feel like the usual ‘heritage’ film. We knew Yorgos would do something fresh and interesting with the genre. He can pivot from high farce to deep tragedy sometimes even within the same scene.”

The western, one of Hollywood's most resilient genres, defines time and place for the Gold Rush story “The Sisters Brothers,” but French director Jacques Audiard captured the complicated bond between its lead siblings with a level of nuance rarely seen in straight-ahead cowboy pictures. Shot with a European crew in Spain and Romania, the movie stars John C. Reilly (who also produced) and Joaquin Phoenix.

Reilly says, “Even though the movie has horses, guns, whiskey, chases and hidden treasure, we never said, ‘We're making a western.’ We just tried to tell a story about these two brothers who are almost like child soldiers that get pushed into war at an early age. It stunts your spiritual growth, so the brothers have been locked into this immature place. It just so happens that the story takes place in 1851 in San Francisco and the Pacific Northwest.”

The obsessed-detective thriller has provided cathartic action for moviegoers at least since “Dirty Harry” started roaming the cinematic streets back in 1971. Moviegoers usually see a man in the middle of the mayhem, but “Destroyer” director Karyn Kusama subverts those expectations by casting Nicole Kidman as L.A. cop Erin Bell hell-bent on avenging the criminal who ruined her life 15 years earlier. Kusama says, “I am absolutely a lover of the crime thriller and its ancillary genres, so I wanted to find moments in ‘Destroyer’ where the movie pulls you into those familiar rhythms.”

At the same time, Kusama, who previously put a feminist stamp on boxing (“Girlfight”), action (“Aeon Flux”) and horror (“Jennifer's Body”) genres, hopes “Destroyer” illuminates the high price of vigilante justice. “The interesting thing about vengeance films, in general, is that I think it's a fairly male genre, a fairly male notion that vengeance is a satisfying way forward. With ‘Destroyer,’ part of me hopes that the audience will experience surprising and brutal violence but also look at this larger question of consequences. We can’t simply have mindless violence for pleasure’s sake. And by the end of ‘Destroyer,’ we see that Erin Bell suffers the ultimate price for her quest.”

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