Robert McKee’s “Works/Doesn’t Work” Review
Screenplay by Gillian Flynn & Steve McQueen
It Works. (Spoiler Alert!)
A Heist With Heart
Major Dramatic Question
The Heist reverses Sherlock Holmes. Instead of a master detective and his sidekick, these tales feature a brilliant criminal and his team. In a closed mystery of the Who-done-it, a mysterious someone commits a perfect crime, creating a puzzle for the master detective to solve. In the open mystery of the Heist, a master criminal’s plan substitutes for an Agatha Christie brainteaser. The Heist’s protagonist wants to break into an impenetrable vault and steal a McGuffin, so he assembles a team which could be as few as two (THE SCORE), a half-dozen (LOGAN LUCKY) or more (OCEANS 11, 12, 13). These criminals devise a complex, seemingly perfect plan that will get them past guards, alarm systems and physical hazards within physical hazards. Since the original Heist film, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950), the team has always been all male.
After seven decades of heists, the audience knows that no matter how well the criminals prepare, something will go wrong. The telling shifts to white-knuckle suspense during the robbery as the team must improvise make or break solutions to unforeseeable problems.
The MDQ for Heist films is not “How will this turn out?”, but “When the plan goes awry, will they improvise a fix or die trying?” Because WIDOWS breaks the all-male tradition with a female team, its vulnerability doubles the suspense and the fixes seem all the more delightful.
The Heist team, like a corporation, hires a specialist to carry out each component of the plan: transportation, communications, weapons and high-tech security systems. Also like a corporation, the motivation for each expert is greed. As a result, empathy is often problematic.
WIDOWS reverses these age-old conventions. Rather than crime specialists, this caper brings together wives and mothers; survival is their motivation, not money; they devise their plan literally by the book—a how-to handbook left behind a professional. Because these first timers are in over the heads, they draw empathy in a heartbeat.
Setup / Payoff
Generally, a payoff needs a setup somewhere in the previous telling, but when a genre convention grows decades old, it can become its own setup. In the first decades of the Crime Genre, for example, Honor Among Thieves was an accepted, although rather naïve, convention. After THE GODFATHER, the convention Thieves Betray Thieves took its place and in time wore itself out. In WIDOWS, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), a gangster, tries to rip off the team but they’ve set a trap for him.
This payoff has no setup because the audience knows by genre convention that he’s a thief and thieves betray thieves and, therefore, he would try to rip the women off. If the screenwriter had bothered to set this up, the turning point would have fallen flat.
Most Heist films focus on the plan and its execution, but WIDOWS added Domestic Drama (infidelity and the pain of widowhood), Political Drama (corruption and bribery) and Social Drama (street gang warfare). These subplots create unconventional motivations for the heist, dimensionalize characters and enrich the plot. In a key last act scene, for example, the Heist and Social Dramas intersect to set up and pay off each other.
Setup: We learn that 34 shootings ripped through the city that weekend. Payoff: When Alice (Elizabeth Devicki) gets shot during the heist, Linda (Michelle Rodriquez) brings her to a hospital and declares to the staff, “It was a drive-by.” and no one thinks otherwise. The city, after all, is Chicago.
With unconventionality and mixed genres old forms are renewed.