I'm not going to go so far as to say that Queen & Slim has the best opening sequence of any 2019 movie, though it's good enough that that thought flickered across my mind briefly. I am going to say that it has the best opening credits sequence of any 2019 movie, perfectly timed after a certain beat in that opening sequence, and marshaling some uniquely cinematic conceits to create one of the year's most emotionally involving moments, and I do mean cinematic: part of what makes those opening credits work is, I think, being trapped in a pitch-black room with them, with a screen thirty times the size of your television the only thing you're permitted to look at. It is masterful work, and whatever quibbles I have with the film - some of them certainly big enough to rise above the level of "quibble" - this makes what I think is an undeniable argument that Melina Matsoukas, a commercial and music video director making her first feature, has it, whatever the hell "it" is, that thing that graces some artists with a fundamental and instinctive understanding of how movies work on us, visually and rhythmically and iconographically.

The film's basic, and incredibly obvious hook, is "Bonnie and Clyde if they were black", which is unfair on a number of counts: first, it is reductive; second, there has already been at least one much more explicit "Bonnie and Clyde if they were black", 1974's Thomasine & Bushrod, and I would be perfectly unsurprised if there were more; third, it's not accurate, anyway. Part of the whole thing about Bonnie and Clyde and the many, many films it inspired was the counter-cultural pleasure they offer: we're rooting for thieves, killers, and general vagabonds, people who've decided to separate themselves from the trappings of polite society for reasons of greed or simple all-American libertarianism. That is, up to the point that we watch them get violently slaughter, the exploits of Bonnie and Clyde are fun and the film is celebratory. Queen & Slim is neither of those things. It is a story of draining misery, of being on the run from the law as a source of constant wearying stress; it is not a celebration of freedom, but a condemnation of the society that placed its outlaws on the outside of the law to begin with.

The film opens in Cleveland, Ohio, during an unsuccessful Tinder date between a man (Daniel Kaluuya) whom we'll call "Slim", for that his how he's credited, though that name is never said out loud, and a woman (Jodie Turner-Smith) whom we'll call "Queen" under the same stipulations. She's a defense attorney in a lousy mood, given that one of her clients was just executed; it's not quite clear what he does, though it seems to involve community activism. This won't end up mattering, since their bad night is about to get much worse. As he drives her back, they get into a fight over his phone, he swerves across the lane, and they're pulled over by a white cop (Sturgill Simpson). He's obviously looking to give Slim a bad time just for the sake of swinging his dick around, and when Queen reacts by fishing for her phone to record the incident, the officer shoots her in the leg. Slim, already panicking, grabs for the cop's gun, and shoots him, killing him instantly. On the spot both Queen & Slim agree to go on the run right now, realising that under no circumstances will this end well for them. Cut to black.

And then, in that black, we get that amazing credits sequence, with the sound of a desperate argument between the two playing out as bright yellow text marches across the screen. Stripped of any imagery, it would already be tense enough simply to listen to the edge in both actors' voices as they snipe at each other, growing increasingly terrified and angry; but matched with the irritating yellow that's the sole point of visual stimulus, it does an even better job at generating the panicky, desperate mental state that's rising in the character in the guts of the audience.

The film has already played a lot of the stylistic cards that it's going to rely on for the rest of the movie, all of them superb. In a film that consists to a substantial degree of the two leads sitting in the front scene of a car, having conversations, Matsoukas has come up with a simple but perfect way of executing that old workhorse of narrative cinema, the shot/reverse-shot conversation: the singles of Queen and Slim are horribly imbalanced, each of them set all the way to the edge of the frame, and the "wrong" side of the frame to boot. So simply watching them looking at each other and talking is intense and fraught with their dislike and mistrust of each other. As the film evolves and the characters inevitable fall in love, the compositions soften. Again, it's a simple thing, but not simple enough that most people would think to do it. Above and beyond the elemental matter of staging, the film also enjoys terrific cinematography by Tat Radcliffe, who to my great surprise turns out not to have any meaningful experience lighting dark brown skin, because he's done an absolutely phenomenal job doing it: in the night scenes that dominate the film's first half, he has carved his actors out of the darkness itself, creating an incredibly fatalistic feeling that's undercut by the beautiful neon colors of the light scattering across them and the soft focus and pastels of the daytime scenes that dominate the more wistful, hopelessly hopeful second half.

The film's style is exquisite throughout - I have not mentioned the precise geometry of the camera movements and the graphic matches, nor the terrific costume designs by Shiona Turini - and it's a real shame that the script by Lena Waithe (from an original idea by, somehow, James Frey) can't make the same claim. It's perfectly fine in the early going, if a little bit too obvious in its attempts to apply real-world politics to a distinctly abstract, mythic travelogue. The bigger problem is that at a certain point, marked out by a really fabulously misguided sequence of cross-cutting, the film simply decides to not work anymore. It makes one terrible decision, which is to show us scenes that take place outside of the main characters' presence (this happens, I think, four times; it is disastrously bad each time); it simultaneously decides that it was wrong to assume that we were the smart, sophisticated audience who could understand what was going on just based on Kaluuya and Turner-Smith's expressions and body language, the compositions, and out knowledge of what society is like in 2019, and decides to start screaming its themes at us. And it goes from relying on some mildly hokey coincidences to inserting completely arbitrary plot points, sometimes for absolutely no reason that has to do with the messages or character psychology (the characters' car breaks down, causing absolutely no shift in tension, or doing much anything but providing a contrived reason for the photograph that the film self-consciously intends to be Iconic). At one point, Chloë Sevigny and Flea just appear out of thin air as the One Good White Couple, who also happen to have a house tricked out with hidey-holes just perfect for keeping fugitives away from the cops. Once the story starts going wrong, it never recovers, leaping from one ginned-up, unbelievable moment to the next, and ending too many times in too many different ways.

But I don't want to end on that note. The script weaknesses are a major problem, but not at all enough to shake my faith that Matsoukas is on her way to becoming a great filmmaker: she's great with the camera, great with her actors - you've never know from their faultlessly-matched performances that Kaluuya is an Oscar-nominated veteran and Turner-Smith is in her first movie role of any size - and great at sinking into a hazy rhythm that lets the characters' fatigue generate a moment-by-moment stillness while also keeping the urgency of their situation at the forefront. Given how easily this could have been a heavy-handed awards-seeking lecture, the fact that the director has turned it into a borderline art film, sort of just by her strength of will, is something of an Oscar-season miracle.