The following is a review of Widows — Directed by Steve McQueen.
Based on Linda La Plante’s 1980s crime drama of the same name, Widows is only the fourth feature film from Academy Award, BAFTA Award, and BFI Fellowship-winning film director Steve McQueen, who has now teamed up with crime writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl & Sharp Objects). After having made films about Irish history, sex addiction, and the American history of slavery, McQueen’s latest film tackles themes such as class, politics, and gender via an audience-pleasing genre.
McQueen’s Widows is a story of survival for women that are deemed unfit to do the dirty work that their husbands were experts in. In the film, the husbands of Veronica (played by Viola Davis), Linda (played by Michelle Rodriguez), and Alice (played by Elizabeth Debicki) all die in an explosive heist gone wrong.
Not only have they lost men that they loved, but their main source of income is also gone. Linda has lost the store that she ran, Alice is forced to become an escort without the financial security that her late husband gave her, and Veronica is left alone and vulnerable when she is approached by men that their husbands wronged.
Veronica’s husband robbed the wrong man. Jamal Manning (played by Brian Tyree Henry), a crime boss-turned-politician, insists that Veronica must repay the $2 million sum that burned away in the explosion that took her husband’s life. With nowhere near enough money to pay Manning, Veronica contacts the other widows, and together they use Veronica’s husband’s notebook to prepare for a heist worth $5 million.
Widows is an emotional drama that is never overly sentimental but which is also loud and startling in the way only action-filled thrillers are. The explosions are devastating, the gunshots are startling enough to knock you out, there are many different types of villains who are all corrupt, but, at the same time, the heartbreak is palpable, the empty space left in Veronica’s life is stylishly evoked, and there is a brilliant identifiable character arc for a supporting character whose development is perhaps the most interesting part of the film.
The film doesn’t hold your hand, but it is sprinkled heavily with recurring objects that may have an integral part to play in the plot. One of these objects is smartly hidden in plain sight in the story only for it to then, later, be presented in a new location for the purpose of clueing you in on what is actually happening. This all leads to one of the best reveals in the film as one of the characters is stupefied in front of an unlocked door that she never opens.
Paired with an adorable West Highland white terrier (Olivia, who also, as it turns out, played a very memorable dog in this year’s Game Night), Viola Davis gives a commanding performance as a grieving character who is thrust into a position that asks her to become the silent powerhouse that only someone like Viola Davis can be.
But it is unfair to single a performance out for praise. This is a true ensemble film with characters that overlap many narrative threads, and the existence of these do not overwhelm the film. There are so many that one could mention so I won’t get to everyone, but here are some of the most memorable performances.
Cynthia Erivo brings a physicality to her slightly underused character. Both Brian Tyree Henry and especially Daniel Kaluuya are terrifying and the latter of the two bring an intensity to the film that makes you want to look away.
Even though she was very good in HBO’s The Tale, Elizabeth Debicki possibly gives a career-best performance here as an abused character who eventually makes room for herself in a world that is unkind to her. Finally, although Colin Farrell’s very pronounced accent is subject, he does do a good job of playing a corrupt politician, who is the product of a system marked by nepotism.
In perhaps the best scene in the film, which reminded me of the infamous Gordon Brown tape, McQueen manages to deftly highlight the class, political, and power struggle of Chicago, as well as the corrupt and dishonest nature of Chicagoan politicians. It is a scene that will likely be studied by plenty of sleep-deprived film students, and for good reason.
The scene in question starts at a political campaign event about minority women. After being on stage with women who he promises to do right by in office, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell’s character) gets into his car and the political platitudes turn into mean racist comments about what just transpired. In one long continuous shot, we see a one-to-three minute transition from impoverished minority communities to the white and wealthy suburb where his campaign office and home is. Even when this film is more concerned with politicians, local communities, and race than heist build-up, it is still a stunning piece of cinema.
McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn impressively subvert heist tropes but, in some cases, it may be to the film’s detriment. The political themes and the lack of a classic, trademark heist film plan-montage make this film hard to sell to everyone. The film feels long, even though it is never uninteresting or unengaging, but opting to not go for a single plan-montage sequence makes the build-up to the heist-in-question slow.
Since the tense heist is over before you know it, the payoff may not be satisfying enough to audiences expecting something more in the vein of The Town or something elaborate but satisfying like Baby Driver. It doesn’t quite have the momentum-build that you’d expect from a conventional heist thriller.
To an extent, McQueen’s version of Widows is a drama about class, inequality, corruption, politics, and gender roles masquerading as a commercial fast-paced heist film. Widows is a twisty and challenging ensemble film heist drama, which may just be director Steve McQueen’s most accessible feature film yet.
9 out of 10
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.