Photo: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by Fox Searchlight
To refer to Steve McQueen’s Widows as “a heist movie” almost feels wrong. Sure, it has a heist in it; in fact, it has two, both of them quite striking. But it’s also such a somber and intimate film that it feels … well, it feels like a Steve McQueen picture. It privileges emotion and imagery over thrills, character development over narrative machinations. (Which is interesting, because it actually has a lot of narrative machinations.) “Rather than indulge in the traditional tropes and set pieces offered by the heist narrative, McQueen chooses to downplay these elements, if not avoid them altogether,” wrote Vulture’s Kevin Lincoln recently. “McQueen isn’t a cut-loose kind of filmmaker, and he can’t help doing even a grand-scale Hollywood entertainment his way,” said Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times. “A thriller not entirely comfortable with thrills” was how A.O. Scott of the New York Times put it.
Some will want my head for saying this, but what McQueen does with Widows reminded me a little of what Luca Guadagnino does with Suspiria, taking the basic elements of a genre property and then drilling down on his own thematic interests and aesthetic obsessions. In Suspiria’s case, those expecting a terrifying update of Dario Argento’s giallo classic were faced instead with an epic, experimental dance-a-thon of guilt, repression, and historical memory. Guadagnino’s film, needless to say, is a lot more divisive than McQueen’s. (Vulture’s Emily Yoshida quite liked it. Vulture’s David Edelstein quite, uh, did not.) And to be fair, Widows works way better as a heist picture than Suspiria does as a horror flick; even fans of the latter would probably agree with that. But in both cases, one senses an auteur eager to put his own personal stamp on something outwardly familiar.
I also can’t help but be reminded a little bit of the debates that have raged over the past few years around the loaded concept of “elevated horror.” These flared up again earlier this year with the releases of Hereditary and A Quiet Place, particularly after John Krasinski used the term offhandedly in describing some recent films that had inspired him to make A Quiet Place; the titles he cited were Get Out, The Witch, Don’t Breathe, and The Babadook, though he could have named any number of others as well. Hereditary director Ari Aster also seemed to distance himself from the horror genre a bit in interviews, perhaps unintentionally.
“Elevated horror” is certainly an inelegant phrase. It seems to ignore the fact that artistry, originality, and innovation have been a part of horror since its infancy. (If anything, it’s the cheap scares that came later.) And besides, as many have argued, horror doesn’t really need “elevating.”
But it is also true that there has been, of late, a renaissance in films that work against typical genre pleasures. And it goes beyond horror.
Not long ago, I wrote about the rising phenomenon of the auteur space movie, which has in recent years seen efforts from the likes of Alfonso Cuarón, Denis Villeneuve, Claire Denis, and Damien Chazelle, each with a radically different and personal project that nevertheless speaks to their unique sensibilities. (Next up: James Gray!) Of course, directors of vision have been tackling space movies at least since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey captured the world’s imagination 50 years ago. But the trend has definitely accelerated of late, perhaps because space movies are easier to sell nowadays. (Though the disappointing box office for First Man suggests that trend may also be starting to wane.)
Something similar has happened with the revengesploitation (which is not a word, apparently, but should be) thriller, once one of filmdom’s most disreputable subgenres. These types of movies used to play off some of our worst instincts — our tribalism, our fear of others, our bloodlust, our fantasies of retribution — so maybe it’s not surprising that they’re coming back. We’ve had a surprising number of vengeance movies of late: Antoine Fuqua’s Equalizer sequel, Eli Roth’s Death Wish remake, Pierre Morel’s Peppermint, among others. These were fairly standard-issue entries of varying quality and gruesomeness, but we also got some strikingly original variations on the concept, too: Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge dialed down the exploitative elements but amped up the brutality to an almost abstract degree. In Mandy, Panos Cosmatos tempered the insanely stylized, over-the-top gore of the second half with an unusually meditative and expressive first half, slowing the action down to luxuriate in mood and texture — the better to convey the depth of what was lost. Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, meanwhile, followed a mercenary instead of a victim, but by editing around Joaquin Phoenix’s wounded performance, it embodied the psyche of a man whose self-loathing and need for self-negation fueled his righteous brutality — which, in turn, further corroded his soul. Going back a few years earlier, we see John Wick taking the revenge thriller and turning it into a throbbing picture book, forsaking the visceral for the beautiful.
You can extrapolate this idea a bit further, and see that a number of this year’s biggest, most important films have turned on taking familiar, less “elevated” genres and finding ways to infuse them with both artistry and resonance. Think of Black Panther, a Marvel superhero movie that is distinguished less by its action scenes and more by its Afrofuturist reveries, and its surprisingly nuanced conflict between different conceptions of racial identity and justice. Meanwhile, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman infuses its colorful, based-on-fact sting narrative with blaxploitation tropes, and even offers a complex, extended tribute to that subgenre. Maybe, in the case of that film, we’re talking about a reversal of sorts — the somewhat high-minded genre of a hero cop biopic being revitalized by the introduction of elements from what was once considered a more lowbrow type of film. You could say something similar about Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, which takes a classic, handsomely mounted costume drama and explodes it with bursts of surreal dialogue, scatological humor, and humiliation comedy. In all of these cases, the filmmakers take familiar material — material that comes with all sorts of easily digested preconceptions — and turn it on its head.
So maybe one reason for all of this “elevating” may have to do with directors looking to make their mark in an industry that doesn’t really know what to do with anything too original or idiosyncratic. Crime flicks, horror flicks, space flicks, and the like have thus become vessels rather than ends in and of themselves. The demands of genre — the jump scares, the spectacle, the pulse-pounding suspense, etc. — become secondary to the movies’ emotional undercurrents and the filmmakers’ aesthetic and thematic obsessions.
To put it another way: Auteurs have to go somewhere. Over the past 20 years, as the industry has retrenched, filmmakers with ambition have found themselves increasingly priced out. Some have opted for significantly lower budgets. Some have migrated to television, where original comedies and dramas still seem to have real value. Some have gone for big tentpole movies, which may come with big paychecks but are closely overseen by powerful franchise overlords like Marvel. And some, yes, seem to be moving toward genre fare that will allow them to do something personal within a marketable framework. That’s not to suggest that Steve McQueen wasn’t going to get his phone calls returned if he didn’t try to make a genre picture; the man’s previous effort, after all, won a Best Picture Oscar. But I’ll bet that getting the money became a lot easier when executives found out he wanted to make a heist movie.
That represents an interesting reversal as well. Because once upon a time, genre was where directors could prove themselves, before they could move on to ostensibly more serious films. Exploitation flicks, low-budget Roger Corman chillers, and the like were breeding grounds for future auteurs — from Francis Ford Coppola to Jonathan Demme to Kathryn Bigelow to James Cameron. Even in the golden days of the studio system, directors often had to cut their teeth on noirs and other thrillers before graduating to serious dramas, literary adaptations, and prestige pictures. And while independent horror remains a terrific launching pad for first-time filmmakers, nowadays the trajectory often seems to go the other way, with directors and actors getting started in serious dramas and personal indie films before being allowed to tackle big genre projects. Maybe that’s the real reason that genre movies ultimately don’t need “elevating.” It’s because in 2018, they’re already at the top of the food chain.