Any Steve McQueen release will inevitably spark some sort of controversy, but the one this time around might be that there isn’t one that’s directly obvious. Less acrid and confrontational than his past work, Widows finds McQueen working in the kind of broadly populist filmmaking spectrum as someone like Michael Mann, and he’s excellent at mapping the atmospheric nature of a Mann mood piece on to writing as polished as screenwriter Gillian Flynn’s is here. It may not be a tectonic shift in the filmmaking landscape as any number of Mann’s films (including Thief and Heat, unparalleled masterpieces in the crime film landscape) but it marks a jump into accessibility for the famously chilly director, but it’s one that doesn’t result in any heavy compromises in the director’s firmly established slick style. It is among the year’s best films, and represents a breakthrough for the already legendary filmmaker.
Adapted from the 1983 ITV series of the same name, Widows begins with a moment of calm: Victoria (Viola Davis) enjoying a relaxed early morning with her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) as they gently kiss one another upon waking up. We quickly flash-forward to the last day of Harry’s life, as he and a group of bank robbers, having jacked cash from the criminal Manning brothers (Bryan Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya), are pursued by the police to their hideout. McQueen cuts back and forth from this moment of domestic tranquility to the shoot-out, all the way until a fiery explosion puts an end to the lives of Harry and his crew. Desperate for cash and wanting to pay tribute to her dead husband, Victoria, gifted Harry’s plans for a final heist by a friend, decides to gather up the widows of the other members of the gang — Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki, whose developing friendship with Victoria provides the film with a great deal of heart), and Belle (Cynthia Ervo), Linda’s babysitter who happens to be a skilled driver in need of some cash — and try for that last big score. The target? Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the angry son of a former city Alderman (Robert Duvall), who is competing with the Mannings for the seat that his father once held a firm grip upon. He’s got millions of dollars of cash hidden in a safe, and the job is to extract the cash on the night of a big debate.
If there’s one thing that McQueen has been fabulous at plot-wise since the start of his career, it’s exposing the depth of an event’s impact on the world around his characters, and Widows finds him and Flynn exposing the rot of corruption on a number of systems — local government, the church, the criminal underworld — and its malignant effect on relationships on the micro level. He takes a similar approach to corruption as he did to slavery in 12 Years a Slave, in that it informs every motivation and action of its powerful characters and inflicts pain on those who aren’t in that precious few. McQueen’s thesis is helped by the best blockbuster usage of Chicago since The Dark Knight, and that sense of place and history informs each and every one of the film’s conflicts.
You’ve got the racial dynamics of the city, with Farrell and Duvall’s patrician politicians running mob-like schemes to stay in power in a neighborhood that they are no longer a good representation of demographically. You also have the flip-side of that represented in the Alderman race: The insurgent campaign run by the Mannings, criminals from the neighborhood, born and raised, so that the elder brother can transition into a more steady line of work; hefty amounts of pork and bribes instead of the day-in day-out risks associated with gang-running. Meet the new boss, et cetera. Still, this isn’t an economic or sociopolitical treatise, and I think you might be surprised at how compelling — and funny — the film is when it gets down to business.
Plenty of this is due to Flynn’s writing, which sets these characters up in a finely expedient way. Our main characters — the deceased and the widows — strike against these fortunes not because they’re trying to right the wrongs inflicted upon them by the powerful, but because they’re big-ass pots of money sitting in relatively easy places, ripe for the taking. It’s Harry’s largest con — to double-cross the various fortunes which have kept him afloat in the community — and it’s a chance for financial freedom for the women, who have all been ruined by the financial failings of their husbands or the other people in their lives.
Linda loses her business because her husband couldn’t stay away from his bookie, pissing away an unknown but extremely large amount of money from his gambling addiction; Alice’s situation is so fucking dire that her mother begs her daughter to start working as an escort so that she can find some sort of financial relief from all of this; Belle is killing herself working at dozens of other jobs so that she can support a family that she never gets to see because of it; and Veronica, by far the best off of the group, is still catching heat from the various men and women that Harry owed money to. Though they’re a disparate group in personality, McQueen and Flynn are able to show how well they eventually manage to work together after some initial conflict, and it’s a pleasure watching them work.
The typical pleasures of McQueen’s work are still there — the crisp and gorgeous cinematography, the absurdist touches (mainly which manifest themselves in Davis’ ever-present West Highland Terrier), his incredible sense of action — but he isn’t forced to work in a particularly flashy way this time around because he’s got a solid script to fall back on. Instead, he’s able to focus on the moments that make the biggest impression of all — the heists and their ensuing fallouts — and preserving a mid-film twist which will actually shock you with its implications on the rest of the story and the effects on its characters. It’s a dramatic showcase for Davis, who is able to use her vast range in a way that compliments her talents, and I think she may have the Best Actress statuette in her possession despite some potential competition from Melissa McCarthy. Seriously.
But as it stands, Widows is another fantastic film from one of the world’s best young directors, and I only can hope that we don’t have to wait as long to hear from McQueen again. The filmmaking world is better off with him active and in it.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image courtesy of TIFF.