Did the Theatrical Experience Kill Widows?

The 2018 Movie Club: another interruption.

Viola Davis in Widows
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Merrick Morton. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, K. Austin Collins, Amy Nicholson, and Bilge Ebiri—about the year in cinema. Read the first entry here.

Bok bok, bitches,

I find myself rudely interrupting this year’s Movie Club to insert a possible wrench into the debate about the theatrical experience, which generally pits the sanctity of the dark room (and its “spiritually distinct” encounters, to borrow Bilge’s phrasing) against its class implications (which Kam so eloquently dissected). 2018 offered its share of movies enriched by communal viewing: Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, A Quiet Place, even Hereditary. But I’d contend some movies are better watched at home, alone or with just one other person, to better process their idiosyncrasies.

The internet is full of pet theories about why Widows, Steve McQueen’s highly anticipated follow-up to his Best Picture–winner, 12 Years a Slave, flopped upon release. Was it the botched marketing? A mistimed arrival during a crowded November? McQueen’s most populist project to date was assured in what it was: a heist film starring Viola Davis that delivered action, suspense, a highly sympathetic heroine, and a deliciously efficient villain in Daniel Kaluuya’s enforcer. But it was also a grief-streaked melodrama that flirted with camp, particularly in that daringly operatic scene when Davis and her co-star Elizabeth Debicki slap each other. McQueen admirably attempted to fuse soap tropes with his art house sensibility, and as much as I hoped to be emotionally transported by his experiment, I kept getting derailed by audience laughter. Other viewers seemed to want Davis’ Veronica to be a more traditionally rootable protagonist—the kind who invites screams of “You go, girl!”—and they seemed to believe that pre-emptively yelling such cheers would make that character what they wanted her to be.

So here’s my theory about Widows’ surprisingly modest impact: Maybe it would have been an exceptional Netflix original. It’s a movie better enjoyed at home, where you can mourn with the protagonist and let yourself react to the film’s tonal loops without distraction. Maybe this is just the misanthrope in me—a misanthrope who felt wonderfully pandered to by the humanity-despairing First Reformed—but sometimes other people make the moviegoing experience worse, especially when it’s a film that doesn’t conform to genre expectations. An intimate film is often more enjoyable in an intimate setting. And no amount of optimal projection, cushioned seating, and compulsory attention can make up for an auditorium that imposes its own feelings about a movie on you before you can figure them out yourself.


Read the previous entry. Read the next entry.