This is the first film by Steve McQueen that doesn’t have Michael Fassbinder as its star, and five years since his Academy winning 12 Years a Slave. As I discovered, you’re only as good as your last film but you can’t dine out on it forever.
If your last film was so-so or a failure, make another as soon as possible, or look for a job selling real estate. McQueen is a fine story teller and he knows how to edit film to suit the material – he has his next film lined up before he finishes the one he’s working on.
Interesting that multiple Oscar winner McQueen would take the career lift from 12 Years A Slave and invest it all in a twists and turns thriller like Widows. While this film is populated by excellent black American actors it’s actually a white cops and robbers story, well, mostly robbers. The police are limited to a car chase.
Widows began life as a British television series, the original writer Lynda La Plante. I admit now I never watched more than ten minutes of it. At the time it read too much like an episode of Coronation Street in killer high heels and power suits. What McQueen has done is to raise its quality for the big screen and shape key roles to empower a multi-racial cast, a refreshing touch that isn’t Oceans Eleven plus little Sammy Davis Junior doing a tap dancing routine. That’s subversive and the result is powerful.
Widows is an intelligent drama with lots of twists and turns to keep us happy if we dare grow too familiar with the characters. And its very intelligent, a carefully balanced mixture of a heist movie that weaves into the plot the inner life of its main players.
Standing back for a broader view and you notice the morality in the story is tit-for-tat, an eye-for-and eye. There is a 70s soft porn sequence which took me by surprise appearing in an otherwise mature work that’s stark, violent and downright cynical. Oh, and there’s a very well behaved chubby West Highland Terrier in a supporting role.
All the women are caring, thoughtful, strong and real, and almost too capable when their backs are up against the wall. Viola Davis plays Veronica Rawlings, a Chicago teachers’ union executive who – and this is the one implausible element – happens to be married to a very successful career criminal, Harry (Liam Neeson). The film opens with a lose head shot of them in bed eating each other’s face off, which made me squirm. Usually Neesen brings great dignity to his roles, this sooky-slurpy moment is puke-making.
Almost immediately we are thrown into a violent heist. The getaway truck belonging to Harry and his gang gets blown up in the sensational first sequence. Every so often we go back to this moment and images of the couples’ lovemaking – including the tragic loss of their son – flashbacks recur throughout the story.
There’s a fly in the ointment. Harry has left a serious problem for Veronica to solve. The $2 million dollars that apparently blew up with the him and the truck came from crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). He shows up at her apartment, throttles her little dog, and gives her a month to pay him back – after which she’ll be visited by Jamal’s right-hand psycho, Jatemme Manning (Daniel Kaluuya), a rather two-dimensional villain who enjoys the torture and execution part of his job way, way too much.
The first twist in the story is here. Harry leaves Veronica a key for his safe deposit box. The box yields plans for a $3 million robbery and incriminating pictures of a well-known politician in flagranti dilecto.
Veronica decides to reap revenge on the loss of her loved one and get herself out of a hell hole not of her making by stealing the old politico’s ill-gotten gains.
She enlists the widows of Harry’s gang for her own gang: Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), whose store is appropriated by nasty unsympathetic creditors; Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), who is told to rent herself out to wealthy wife cheaters as a living by her simple-minded mother of all people; and Amanda (Carrie Coon), restricted to the role of ‘woman who has to clutch a small baby in each scene’.
McQueen is too smart to make a bog standard genre movie. He throws in a good if familiar political subplot in which the crime boss Manning runs for alderman against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the son of an elderly but still powerful corrupt Chicago old-school politico (Robert Duvall) – the subject of the bollock naked photographs.
Young Manning is keen to ditch his father’s rancid legacy, to be a true friend of people representative doing good work handing democracy back to struggling poor folks, but his boor of a father keeps tripping him up and messing with his psyche. Duval does scumbags to perfection, and here adds to his lustrous list of foul-mouthed jerks.
Manning has a shot at the election ticket, but the borders of the ward have been redrawn, pitting him against the local black Mafia. As he drives into the all-black neighborhood there’s a terrifically clever sequence of an extended camera shot on his limousine, not inside as is the usual case, but focused on the windscreen and without hidden spotlights inside to illuminate the actor’s faces. What we see are the ramshackle, rundown houses passing across the tinted glass.
Al-in-all this is an absorbing two-hour crowd-pleaser in which all the loose ends come together satisfactorily, the twists make audiences gasp.
Widows is a strange choice for McQueen to make at this point in his movie career, but perhaps he wanted to shoot a pot-boiler while his next big film is in development. More likely it was part of the studio deal to get the budget for 12 Years a Slave – “we’ll give you the money for Slave, you do a couple of movies for us.”
The cast is mostly a treat, although Colin Farrell, looking decidely middle-aged, should avoid accents. Jacki Weaver playings Debicki’s overbearing, faced painted mom is an over-the-top pantomime dame. As for the widows, Davis carries her early story suffering nobly before transforming herself into a total steely-eyed badass. The beautiful Rodriguez portrays indecision with great subtlety. We watch her and recognise situations that have had us bite or lip and dither.
Ten feet tall woman in a condom dress Debicki is a riot. Her scenes with Lukas Haas – unrecognisable from his childhood days in the wonderful Amish “Witness” – playing the man unhappy with his wife paying for a substitute, are perfect. Like a construction crane she towers over him and everybody around. Given she is renting her body, height doesn’t matter – he has all the power. There’s a whole film in that relationship alone.
A late addition to the gang is – to my mind at least – a fabulously ballsy take-no-prisoners British singer Cynthia Erivo. Bleached hair, muscular arms, brought her own gun, she offers us a formidable presence and beats off Veronica is verbal matches.
Like his previous films, McQueen’s characters arrive to our gaze fully-formed. This is a clearly well-funded production, a ton of locations to enjoy, loaded with talent in front of and behind the camera. Hans Zimmer scores; Sean Bobbitt shoots; Adam Stockhausen designs around Chicago, incorporating some of McQueen’s favourite motifs
Steve McQueen using his time on this B-movie to great effect. He empowers the women in it. It’s a bold shot that works for the most part of its length.
- Star Rating: Four stars
- Cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo
- Director: Steve McQueen
- Screenplay: Steve McQueen, Gillian Flynn
- Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt
- Music: Hans Zimmer
- Duration: 2 hours 8 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?