DIR: Steve McQueen • WRI: Gillian Flynn, Steve McQueen • DOP: Sean Bobbitt • ED: Joe Walker • DES: Adam Stockhausen • PRO: Iain Canning, Steve McQueen, Arnon Milchan, Emile Sherman, Sue Bruce Smith • MUS: Hans Zimmer • CAST: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki
Genre and literary forms often don’t mix that well. At least that’s the consensus of snobs and people that think Nicolas Cage’s best film is Leaving Las Vegas. But genre cinema has had a great renaissance recently with the likes of Mandy, The Shape of Water and Mission Impossible: Fallout all being heaped with praise. The more highbrow, literary if you will, form of cinema has always been in good stead. But when mixed together something magical can happen between the two. It depends on who the mixer is but when it’s Steve McQueen magic is almost guaranteed.
So it is with Widows. When four criminals are killed in a police ambush the man they were stealing from, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), approaches their widows to get his money back. Veronica (Viola Davis) the widow of leader Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) approaches the other widows fiery Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), naïve Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and workaholic Belle (Cynthia Erivo) to complete their husbands’ last score. Mixed up in this brutal tale are politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), Jamal’s sadistic brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) and Jack’s aging father Tom (Robert Duvall).
Trauma rests at the heart of McQueen’s films. Whether that trauma consumes its victims or is weaponised by them depends on the film but in Widows it becomes a weapon that often seems to harm both sides. Anyone that knows grief will tell you it is often raw. It can burn like fire, bleed like a wound or chill like ice but it is always there as a blistering, cutting force on the soul. Widows examines it from all angles. Characters often face it as much as they flounder in it. Whether it’s grief over an irreparable relationship, a dead partner or stolen millions. It’s there and it bleeds.
McQueen co-wrote Widows with Gone Girl novelist and screenwriter Gillian Flynn. After Sharp Objects this year Flynn may as well be considered an expert in trauma as a tool in genre. The characters of Veronica and Alice are the strongest with Davis plastering a stony, glamorous veneer over Veronica’s crumbling emotional walls. Debicki meanwhile portrays Alice as a woman thrilled by the newfound power that criminality offers her. The relationships the widows shared with their husbands are outlined in brief scenes that get done in two minutes what most films take two hours to thrash out. All are complex, loving in their own way and all have their problems.
It’s been a bad year for heist films. Den of Thieves tried to do Heat with Gerard Butler, which speaks for itself. Ocean’s 8 was all class and no character. Widows is the late-year entry this genre was desperate for. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt shoots Chicago as a grim, cold, claustrophobic place. Hans Zimmer’s score ratchets up the tension and glimmers with soul. Kaluuya and Henry radiate a sinister silence while Neeson inverts the prototypical tough guy he often plays into a pathetic, broken man.
Widows might not rank highly among McQueen’s fans but it’s the only one of his films I’d consistently watch again as a film fan. It’s a film with plenty of muscle on strong bones and rich blood coursing through its veins. The same things can be said of Hunger or Shame or 12 Years A Slave but it’s hard to watch any of those and come away feeling good. McQueen and Flynn indulge themselves in escapism but Widows never feels less incisive for it. It is a masterful film made by a man at the peak of his powers. It’s not Heat, it’s better.