Synopsis: When notorious bank robber Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew die in a heist gone wrong, it is up to his wife Veronica (Viola Davis) and the other widows (Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki) to finish his last job in order to pay off their husbands’ debt to a pair of merciless gangsters (Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya) who are seeking to unseat a political dynasty (Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall).
1. Whenever a bona fide artist makes a play for the mainstream, the result is one of two scenarios. One, the artist slums it, sanding off his or her more outré tendencies in order to create something safe and conventional. The final product can range from good (Scorsese’s The Color of Money) to bad (Burton’s Planet of The Apes), but it will rarely ever stand out in the director’s catalogue. Then there is the alternative, where the artist integrates what makes him or her special into the film and elevates it above the run-of-the-mill. Once again, the final product can range from good (The Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men) to bad (Lynch’s Dune), but at the very least, it will be interesting.
Widows is an excellent example of the latter, and happens to be a damn fine film to boot.
2. Steve McQueen (not to be confused with the 70s movie star) is one of the premier filmmakers of the 21st century. His oeuvre, while short, is composed of nothing but masterpieces. Hunger, Shame and 12 Years A Slave are pinnacles of technical craft and artistic expression. McQueen makes challenging, punishing films about the darkest tendencies of the human condition with the utmost of formalist rigour and theoretical underpinnings. What I’m trying to say is that this is pretty much the last guy you would expect to direct a heist movie. But direct a heist movie he does, and he not only directs the shit out of it, but transforms it (along with co-screenwriter Gillian Flynn) into one of the sharpest societal critiques that has come from mainstream Hollywood in a long time. Above all, Widows is an exhibit of what is possible when a brilliant director treats mainstream material with the same care and attention as his more ‘artsy’ work.
3. Part of the reason McQueen elevates his genre material instead of being dragged down by it is because of his refusal to compromise his technique. The hallmarks of McQueen’s style are in abundance in Widows – extreme close-ups of faces and objects, elaborately choreographed long takes, beautifully composed establishing shots, the careful interplay of what is and isn’t in focus in the frame, and so on. The opening scene alone reveals the steady guiding hand of a master, with McQueen smash cutting from the violent aftermath of the robbery to quick vignettes that perfectly encapsulate the relationship the men have with their wives. It is visual storytelling at its most elegant and succinct, delivering a wealth of information to the audience without having to rely on mountains of exposition. With so many mainstream films defaulting to bland competence, it is refreshing to see a talented filmmaker stamp his own inimitable style throughout the film and transform pulp into art.
4. Plenty of credit must also be given to the screenplay as well. McQueen and Flynn clearly have much higher ambitions than just another heist movie, and it shows in the final product. Widows deals with issues of (clears throat) gender, race, class, political corruption, police brutality and gentrification. In many ways, the film resembles a hyper-charged episode of The Wire, where the crime in question is more of a vehicle for the social commentary. As expected from the title, the film focuses greatly on gender issues, with particular emphasis on the roles of women, which fits right into Gillian Flynn’s wheelhouse. Collectively, the four women in the crew represent the various societal roles that women play – wife, mother, homemaker, lover, kept woman, breadwinner, etc. – and McQueen and Flynn do an excellent job in illustrating the dynamic push and pull of these various roles and the way in which the women react to the ones that they have chosen and the ones forced upon them. Race and class are also major themes of the film, and the biggest bravura shot of the film* is a beautiful illustration of the way that white wealth and black poverty exist so close to each other while being worlds apart. Widows also cleverly posits the idea that very little separates street-level and white-collar criminals aside from the veneer of respectability, by drawing a contrast between the two very different sets of criminals on both sides of the central political race. Yet, the level of ambition shown by Widows does not come without drawbacks, as the film does feel a tad overstuffed. With so many weighty themes packed into a relatively svelte two hour running time, not all can be given the necessary attention they deserve, and a few (e.g. motherhood and interracial relationships) are given short shrift.
5. As should be expected from the director’s track record and the stacked cast, the acting is generally superb. These are the standouts. Cynthia Erivo breathes life and energy into the relatively underwritten fourth wheel of the crew. Viola Davis, excellent as always, continues to find new layers to her tough-as-nails persona. Daniel Kaluuya transmutes his usual stoic charisma into an icy psychopathy, and is equal parts riveting and terrifying every time he is onscreen. Highest plaudits, however, belong to Elizabeth Debicki, who does wonders as the trophy wife discovering the strength to rebel against the arm-candy designation that everyone in her life is determined to push onto her**.
6. All in all, Widows is an excellent foray into the mainstream by one of the finest filmmakers working today. A heist movie that has ambitions to be much more, it largely succeeds in meeting those lofty goals. Both a tightly plotted thriller and a sprawling social commentary, it is that rarest of cinematic beasts – a mid-budget film for adults that manages to be both entertaining and intellectually stimulating. Strongly recommended. Best to also watch it in a cinema to send a message to Hollywood that this is precisely the sort of movie they should be making more of.
*A lengthy tracking shot with the camera mounted to the front of a car, following its journey from the projects to the mansions, soundtracked by Colin Farrell’s Jack Mulligan ranting about the brokenness of the political system he is about to inhabit.
** Also, the fact that Debicki is 1.88m in height makes every two- or three-shot kinda funny, because of how she absolutely towers over everyone else in the film. Something tells me that she will never have the ‘privilege’ of playing Tom Cruise’s love interest.