Director: Steve McQueen
Screenplay: Gillian Flynn, Steve McQueen
Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson
Runtime: 129 Minutes
British director Steve McQueen’s ascent to Hollywood off the back of the runaway success of 12 Years a Slave was something worth championing; after seeing the video artist turned feature filmmaker build an esteemed reputation in smaller work, he has never lost the sight of the true artist that he is. Operating with deeply rooted themes explored through patient visual storytelling, the work of editing, framing and the right sense of when to stress the audience’s attention to something and when to let something lie.
So the question of whether or not his latest feature Widows (adapted from the 1983 ITV series of the same name, in which four armed robbers are killed in a failed heist attempt, only to have their widows step up to finish the job) and his collaboration with acclaimed writer Gillian Flynn would manifest with a project as promising as it sounds on paper was never something that was raised. Of course it would work, how on earth could it not?
But what has been marketed heavily as McQueen’s step into the blockbuster arena – a dramatic heist thriller featuring an all-star cast – reveals itself in actuality to be a multifaceted depiction of many different characters in differing levels of power, and how they relate to one and other as much as the worlds in which they are born into. Carrying with it themes of grief, greed and identity through its portrayal of race and power structures in contemporary Chicago.
That’s not to say that the film isn’t as thrilling as any other popcorn blockbuster, because it absolutely is. Despite McQueen’s penchants for shooting long unbroken takes from fixed camera positions, his handling of the action sequences, in particular the blowout introductory sequence of a heist gone fatally wrong intercut with the final moments the deceased spent with their partners back home, sees him step up eye to eye with the likes of David Fincher and Michael Mann.
This is an exquisitely dark film with cinematography and set designs that at once reflect the characters and the identity of the city in which they are based. But it’s in the moments in between where he shows his true qualities as a humanist filmmaker. In the complex editing of the heist sequence of the final movement, ot the distance in which he holds his camera as Viola Davis’ Veronica Rawlins lets out a howling scream of anguish before husband Harry’s (Liam Neeson) funeral.
In the film’s most impactful shot, we overhear wealthy politician Jack Mulligan’s (Colin Farrell) rant against the world in a moving limousine as the camera is fixed to the exterior dashboard, all the while the crumbling suburbs transform into a gentrified upper-class neighbourhood in a real-time slight of hand so carefully presented that it only really sinks in once it’s over.
This is where McQueen and Flynn find the most to work with, weaving the multidimensional themes back into character development through action and dialogue that rarely relies on exposition to explain the how’s and whys of the personalities and histories of its many characters – especially it’s women.
More than anything else at play, it’s apparent that they’re most focused on presenting these widows and their plan as a way for them not just to prove that they no longer need the men in their lives to support them financially, or to even give them purpose in life, but that they are sick and tired of being underestimated by the systems of gender, class and race that have stood in their way for so long and are taking a stand of agency for their own benefits, and in some cases for the benefits of their children.
It’s how Flynn and McQueen approach the women of this man's world that they both exist within and do not belong in that allows us to catch the glimpses that other films like it might not. How a crass joke about not “pull[ing] out when it feels this good” is sharply cut by a reaction shot of a female PA whose tired eyes say more than words ever could. These are the onlookers “moving like men” to take what they feel is owed to them.
Viola Davis is expectedly extraordinary in what might be the central role (if there even is one amongst this ensemble cast), a woman left with the debts and damage left by her husband but unable to let go of the intense emotional connection that they shared in waking dreams.
Michelle Rodriguez as Linda Perelli is a now single mother suffering for her husband gambling away their money and losing their store, her complex bondage to him coming out in distressingly emotional ways that Rodriguez pulls off with real believability and anguish. Even Cynthia Erivo as Belle O'Reilly, a babysitter with an energetic attitude brought on the drive for the widows, feels like she has her own internal life and struggles going on beyond the frame.
Elizabeth Debicki as Alice Gunner might have the strongest arc – or at least most visible – of all of them. A not so bright young woman who gets into semi-abusive relationships for money, left with nothing in the wake of her partner Florek’s (Jon Bernthal) death and her mother Agnieska (Jacki Weaver) forcing her onto high-end dates with wealthy men (Lukas Haas) for the sake of surviving. Tired of simply surviving and taking the abuse of others, the moment she gets a gun in her hands her true strengths start coming to the service in liberating new ways.
Then there’s the antagonists in Brian Tyree Henry as Jamal Manning, a crime boss to whom the widows are indebted and is running for local government against Mulligan for the money and power more so than the racial injustices that he apparently rallies against, and brother Jatemme as his right-hand man and enforcer (Daniel Kaluuya).
Kaluuya is playing a very different kind of role here to the ones he is best known for, but he’s magnetically terrifying as a twisted and self-educated psychopath who likes playing with his victims as much as punishing them. As is Henry, who continues his excellent year as he transitions from television to cinema in a very imposing role.
Collin Farrell’s character is one who is far more complicated than he might initially appear. The son of Robert Duvall’s once powerful power broker who share an endless war of words behind the scenes, with his father and his friends’ racist sentiments bouncing off his squeaky-clean persona in public but cracking under the weight of private scrutiny and they coldly parse out the facts according to them of how the world is run.
How the actual events play out is one of calculation, as the heroines formulate their plan based on their own resourcefulness and Flynn converges the threads of these many different characters into a tightly contained story over its runtime. It moves like clockwork, and even while holding off its payoff until very late they feel all the more satisfying for making you wait so long, and to fully understand the psychologies of the people involved.
That is if we disregard the elephant in the room, which we, unfortunately, cannot ignore and neither discuss in full here. Suffice it to say that at around the midpoint Flynn and McQueen conjure a reveal that feels destined to split audiences down the middle.
Not because it’s necessarily that bad a twist (it’s a brilliantly executed reveal), but because it looks for a moment like the film is about to throw a complete spanner into the works of the widows’ plan and their relationships and then… doesn’t. It’s introduced, forgotten about, and then re-emerges with moments to spare and is burned off in a single exchange so brief that it begs the question of why it felt so essential in the first place. Even if it does pay off for at least one major piece of character development.
There’s also the feeling that it will be perceived as leaving questions unanswered in the way that it drops certain characters completely before the final reveal, without a tied-up resolve. But to mark it down for that is to underestimate McQueen as a storyteller, who has often functioned like this, and where he leaves a character is usually where their story or usefulness has run its course and their job to the story is more or less complete.
Widows might be McQueen’s weakest feature, but considering how great even this turned out there’s barely anything to grumble about beyond one contentious development. This is an intense, often plus racing film with no reservations when it comes to cutting deep into the conflicts of its characters and making the audience feel it. But it takes it’s premise and runs with it in a way that suits the characters more than plot or the expectations of how a storyline should foreseeably come together.