Director: Steve McQueen
Stars: Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez
There’s more than one locked room to crack in Steve McQueen’s blistering new heist movie Widows. Viola Davis’ Veronica Rawlings is as tough a nut as we’ve yet encountered from this director, whose work has a thematic through-run of protagonists restricted by bonds, literal or psychological. Veronica gets both; backed into a corner while grieving her husband. It’s a superb performance from Davis – Veronica is a woman who has built a fortress around herself, emotionally – and being handed this seemingly impenetrable block of resilience feels like a tough ask straight out of the gate. But then, no one said this was going to be easy.
Widows is a dark bruise of a film, and in no way the departure for McQueen that it may have first appeared. The heist movie is not without its classics. The Asphalt Jungle. Rififi. Heat. As of late, however, it has more commonly become a playground for light capers (see Soberberg’s entries); an arena of modest comic relief even. A place of safety. The motivational driving force in recent years has been the thrill of the job itself. Of being good at being bad. A fantasy lifestyle dalliance. McQueen’s film isn’t that. Every major character in Widows is acting out of some form of necessity; to protect themselves; to survive. They are driven out of need, not want.
A gang of male thieves led by Liam Neeson’s Harry Rawlings are dead, killed in a van explosion in the aftermath of a bungled escape. Up in flames with them is $2 million belonging to Chicago street muscle Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry). Jamal is making a bid for political office to legitimise himself and obtain more power. A large part of his capital just went kaboom. He leans on Rawlings’ widow, Veronica, to make things right. She has two weeks.
A woman of intense mettle, Veronica isn’t about to let anyone else control her destiny. On discovering her husband’s heist bible – and the works for his next job – she decides to take it on, recruiting the widows of her late husband’s crew. She doesn’t want to chit-chat. She doesn’t want to make friends. Her new acquaintances are a means to an end; bullet points on an itinerary that must be completed.
McQueen has more time for them. Michelle Rodriguez plays Linda; a store owner and mother discovering that her husband’s debts have left her similarly cornered. Elizabeth Debicki, meanwhile, plays Alice; a pretty blonde beanpole loosed from an abusive relationship who has resorted to escort work to make ends meet. If Davis is a dependable force to be reckoned with, Debicki is the most joyous revelation, bringing depth and gumption to Alice, straddling a line between vulnerability and ingenuity.
Three need to be four, and that’s where fleet of foot hairdresser / babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo) comes into things. Erivo’s having quite a month. Having already been the best thing about the scattershot Bad Times At The El Royale, Widows is another feather in her cap, confirming that she is indeed a name to watch.
McQueen’s film achieves in two hours what David Simon and co would spend eight to twelve hours establishing on HBO; that is presenting not just a crime story, but wholly realising the context of the city it is taking place in. The modern-day Chicago of Widows is an unforgiving place, with corruption a multi-generational proposition wherever you turn. Adding further weight to the bulging credibility of the film’s cast are Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall as established political father and son Jack and Tom Mulligan. In Widows power runs in families. The social grouping of neighbourhoods and the privileges of class don’t delineate culpability.
Following such heavyweight hitters as Hunger, Shame and 12 Years A Slave, one would be forgiven for thinking that this would be a flimsier proposition, or even a case of McQueen testing the waters of director-for-hire Hollywood. That Widows is an adaptation of an 80’s ITV drama doesn’t help the case. But what McQueen has turned that into here is as formidable as anything he’s put his name to. If the intent was to try to legitimise a genre – the heist movie – that had fallen into disrepair, then the operation has been a success. Assisting him on screenwriting duties is Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame. McQueen’s super-serious tone is ever-present (again to the tipping point of self-parody), but Flynn injects some of her own narrative kineticism into the very blueprints of the film, which most often appears patchwork, zooming from one section of its sprawl to another. In that sense it does feel kindred to Michael Mann’s aforementioned Heat, and is as much about character and circumstance as it is action and violence.
McQueen and Flynn throw some literal soapboxing into the mix, edging for a state-of-the-nation address under Trump, while the all-girl gang of protectors and survivalists at the film’s core couldn’t have been timed better. Where Ocean’s Eight was an agreeable cupcake of a movie, Widows is a far sterner proposition, driven the entire time by a grievous fury. Perhaps it is a romp of another kind; a primal scream; catharsis for the shitkicked.
This one feels like a future classic, liable to get lost in the shuffle or taken for granted right now, but which will be looked back on in the years or decades to come as an integral title in both McQueen’s legacy, and of auteur cinema of the late 2010s. The tough-as-nails approach won’t make it an immediate crowd pleaser (it’s a shade too hard and cerebral for that), but film historians will look back on it as what it is; one of the truly great films of 2018.