Steve McQueen’s surprises with his latest feature 'Widows'. I was ready to bet the farm and more that his venture into genre filmmaking would be nothing short of brilliant – and it is. But the surprise for me lay in how he goes about crafting a caper that is aware it is subverting rules of the genre on a few layers.
That ‘Widows’ would function as an ensemble piece was expected. Most heist films are. But McQueen and his co-writer, Gillian Flynn, lay their dense foundation and ponder on the idea smack in the title, widowhood, to craft a harsh world.
On the surface, ‘Widows’ is certainly a more entertaining watch than the films in McQueen’s back catalog (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave). Take a closer look and the ideas of indignity, degradation and enslavement that transfixed us to harrowing effect wink at us with chilling glee. McQueen perhaps tells us he may never stray far from worlds borne of punishing angst.
The opening of 'Widows' screams volumes at us about the marriages our central characters resided in. It’s a montage that intersperses scenes of intense intimacy and domesticity with an even more intense heist that goes horribly wrong. You will be forgiven for paying more attention to the sensationally composed failed getaway than the brief shots that convey the essence of marriages ended by the explosion engulfs the getaway van.
We see marriages defined by deceit, physical and emotional abuse; partners with no time for their wives and even a nod to addiction, which is a rift in a relationship. But that’s all in the past now and reckoning soon bursts through the door and shoves grief out of the way.
Viola Davis’ Veronica Rawlings, a teacher union executive, was married to the brains of the heist, Harry (Liam Neeson). Blowing up with him and the rest of the crew was $2 million that belonged to crime boss cum politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Jamal visits Veronica in a scene evoking ruthless extended family members plundering the widow of a relative they barely knew.
Jamal needs the $2 million for a campaign for office and gives Veronica a one-month ultimatum. Jamal chokes Veronica’s cute dog as he lays down the stakes. But by this point, we know he’s infinitely a more desirable prospect than his sadistic brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) waiting in the shadows with a bloodlust.
The other widows aren’t faring much better. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) loses her livelihood when her store is taken over and ransacked by creditors. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) is all but being nudged towards prostitution by her overbearing mother (Jackie Weaver) and Amanda (Carrie Coon) is left with a newborn babe to care for on her own.
The widows are first brought together after Veronica discovers plans for a big heist in a safe-deposit box Harry left to her. Amanda is a bit of mystery to us early on, but it doesn’t take much doing for Veronica to enlist Linda and Alice for the heist; setting us up for some of the more mandatory components of a caper.
There is an argument to be made that McQueen isn’t as invested in the heist as he should be. This would be a massive failing under a lesser storyteller. But the component that competes with the caper for attention is executed with a deftness that makes 'Widows' extra special.
'Widows' has a brilliantly cynical political subplot that gives immense life to its Chicago setting. At the forefront of this layer singed by corruption and exploitation is the contest for alderman of a precinct in Chicago. “Dollar signs and empty promises,” we are told. Jamal is running against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the son of an influential but retired politician played by Robert Duvall (I can’t believe I’m still watching Duvall performances in 2019!).
The election would have been a mere open goal for Jack if it weren't for some gerrymandering which meant some more work had to be done for the black vote. This sets up one of the much talked about sequences of the film. The class divide is highlighted in a single take filmed from the bonnet of Mulligan’s car as he commutes from the decaying predominantly black neighborhood to the more ornate area he lives in minutes; right in McQueen’s show don’t tell wheelhouse.
This sequence also cuts to the core of Farrell’s character who, gun to his head, doesn’t have the stomach for the endless nihilistic cycle that is politics despite his brash exterior. His father is a racist overbearing figure that treats the platform of alderman like his family’s birthright. He’s probably the only reason Jack wades in the murky arena of politics. There was so much to be had in the relationship between the Mulligan patriarch and his son, but the script had to keep things moving.
This is the best ensemble cast I’ve seen in cinema; when assessing it via an equation that considers star power, screen time and overall heft. 'Widows' is over two hours long but sports zero chaff and achieves a level of fine balance a Jedi would kill for. For enjoyment factor, look no further than Kaluuya who slips on the black hat with disturbing ease and he has this great sequence with two of his crew responsible for losing Jamal’s $2 million.
Most of the nuance gushes forth from the widows. Davis seems stuck in a bottomless pit of suffocating grief but still has this air of grace about her. Watch out for her slick biceps later on. Rodriguez is the one you would expect to lead in the biceps category. She instead has to pull off flower dresses with wedges; which she does. She shows range by shelving her trusty scowl for a performance that draws on worry, inadequacy and an interesting sensual longing.
Debicki is given a longer runway than her co-stars. Alice’s mom does succeed in having her get some kind of sugar daddy, with whom she strikes a warmer than expected relationship. But she is still pretty much an object, much like the time she served as a punching bag for her late husband. Like Linda and Veronica, Alice finds her worth as a fighter and nurture in the gang of widows; finally growing into her slender towering frame.
Budding sensation Cynthia Erivo joins the gang later in the film after being elevated from babysitter to getaway driver by Linda. Fans of hers will certainly feel starved especially after her magnetic performance in ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ but she never looks out of place in the middle showdown with Davis.
There is a part of me that wishes McQueen would have dug into more genre elements of the film. The mechanics of the heist involve things going wrong and the players reacting, much like the lives of their subjects. They are backed into corners by an unforgiving world and there is an immense rush that comes with watching them snap back.
'Widows' excels because McQueen he doesn't settle for the confines of the genre. He juggles tremendous substance with an awareness of the workings of heist movies. Unlike, say, Nicolas Winding Refn's 'Drive', which is unapologetically subversive of the genre, 'Widows' still pivots of expected beats to showcase the catharsis forged from a support system for widows.