An exceptional movie.
Steve McQueen is an auteur of people. Their successes, their triumphs, their despairs, all are often explored in his work, verging from the depths of sexual morality in Shame, to man’s dismissal of morality in 12 Years A Slave. Morality is certainly the word, and Widows, his newest feature, is a more accessible discussion of it; a deep character study in a problematically realistic world, under the skin of an exhilarating heist picture.
When the husbands of a group of women are killed in a disastrous job gone wrong, Veronica (Viola Davis) is left to pick up the pieces of the debt her partner (Liam Neeson) left. She gathers the remaining wives to pull of the multimillion-dollar heist of a lifetime, all while the political race for control of a Chicago ward races on.
The unlikely gathering is a mixing pot of personalities. Veronica is a leader, staring grief in the face and only rarely taking a moment to drain herself of struggle. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) is a working mum, straggling to keep her family’s life smoothly sailing as her chaotic husband (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) brings in constant debt. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) is glorified eye-candy for her man (Jon Bernthal), hiding her black eyes from the abuse at the kitchen table because it makes him “feel bad”, and then falling under his spell in return. In a way though, they’re all the same; they’re women who are treated like pawns at the hands of their significant other. McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn (best known for Gone Girl and of late, the outstanding HBO drama Sharp Objects) orchestrate entanglements and relationships that painfully reflect real life nature. “Everything’s just a transaction”, Debicki’s Alice says. Regularly the women do things, and a man looks for something in return, not necessarily as a courtesy, but because they think they deserve it – the consistent recurrence of this conflict throughout Widows rings very true in the #MeToo era.
The film has its origins in a book-turned-miniseries, also of the same name, in the 80s. Just goes to show how seamlessly the transfer of a bulky 33 years is. Naturally, the team on-hand is perfect for the update. Flynn’s contributions to the screenplay are deeply felt, illuminating the script with a grit and furore in the women that plays beautifully against McQueen’s versatility. It isn’t without levity too; Alice questions how she’ll manage to buy a gun, to which Veronica retorts, “It’s America”. They don’t heighten the group’s grief to snatch dramatic gravitas either, it’s hugely emotional without being manipulative – not a single reaction feels off kilter.
Each and every single one of the women are marvellous, with a much welcomed, if slightly abrupt, late entry from Cynthia Erivo (a performer whose talents deserve to be showcased) complementing the dynamic further. The two standouts are Davis and Debicki, the former stepping into her expectedly commanding shoes, the latter stunning us with brilliant confidence – her character is a testament to pain, and its one virtue at teaching us to be adaptable.
The backdrop to the heist is much more male-dominated. While the deceased crew is more than good in their short screen time (Neeson and Davis share a fairly steamy kiss in the very first scene), the film finds its strongest males in villainy. Whether it’s the crooked combination of father and son politicians, Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall (“Nepotism isn’t illegal” Farrell’s character assures), or more forceful aggressors in the form of Brian Tyree Henry’s opposing frontrunner, they work together. Then, at the top of the balls-in-your-stomach barometer is Daniel Kaluuya, an ice-cold force of evil who could enter Supporting Actor conversations next year. He exhibits the sort of reckless abandon that makes any moment of his presence an anxious moment – an absolutely brutal one-take sequence in a gym hall hits this home.
McQueen’s direction is utterly sublime, not just going for the one long-take, but stuffing his feature to the brim with dense passages that only a master could craft to be so smooth. But what’s very impressive is how accessible it is – it’s not avant-garde, or particularly artsy, but classy. He takes exhilarating action in one hand, intimate character drama in the other, and combines them into an immensely satisfying, muscular piece of work.
The inevitable heist is great too, smartly opting not to go down the Ocean’s route of swish step-by-stepping, and keeping the ordeal firmly rooted in the unpredictability of reality. Zimmer’s score, unusually, doesn’t hold your heart in its hands and would have benefited from a more bombastic touch, similar to that of the trailers. The drama is the focus though, and Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography, an effortless handle on slight graininess and gentle colouring lends the film a classic movie feel, which is appropriate, as this has the legs to be just that.
McQueen and Flynn are masters at work. Rich, powerful and enthralling, with an empowering ensemble – don’t miss it.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm