A caress and a slap—that’s how Academy Award winning director Steve McQueen (Shame; 12 Years a Slave) describes the frenetic opening scene of his latest film, Widows, in which a passionate love-making session is intercut with a heist. It sets the tone brilliantly for what’s to come.
After Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew are incinerated in a failed heist, Harry’s wife Veronica (Viola Davis) finds herself indebted to crime boss and politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) to the tune of two million dollars. Manning needs said money to fund his campaign against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the son of the incumbent ward alderman Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall). With only Harry’s handwritten plans detailing his next heist to work with, Veronica has to team up with the crew’s other widows, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), as well as Linda’s babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo), to help pay off their debt and set up their futures.
Widows adapts Lynda La Plante’s ‘80s television series and uproots the action from London to Chicago, allowing the film to explore social and political tensions present in modern America. Co-written by Gone Girl scribe Gillian Flynn, Widows is incredibly vast and detailed in its thematic scope—the screenplay delves into the ideas of political corruption, interracial relationships, class systems, gender expectations, police brutality and more. While this may create an unfocused film in lesser hands, McQueen explores every idea perfectly with each theme tying back to our leading women and their struggle.
With McQueen as the writer and director, it was obvious that Widows wasn’t going to be your standard heist picture. In many ways it is the antithesis to this year’s painfully artificial and substance-deprived Ocean’s 8. McQueen assembles a strong group of women who are all regular people with everyday problems from different classes and races but forced to band together. Veronica deals with the loss of her son, Linda is a woman who has lost a business while trying to raise young children, and Alice has to sell herself to a wealthy real estate worker. This is without even mentioning the recent losses of their husbands. Desperation is a key driver of our characters, with our crew having to step out of their late husband’s shadows and pull off a heist to, basically, stay alive. Not only that, our two political rivals desperately try to one-up each other and gain victory in their election by whatever means possible.
In one extraordinary long take—which may be my favourite shot of the year to date—Jack Mulligan is driven in real time from the rundown projects to the grass-laden mansions of Chicago where socioeconomic difference is only minutes apart. In a prime example of McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s endless creativity, the camera focuses not once on the conversation Mulligan’s having inside the car but is instead mounted on the outside of the car panning left to right as we witness the divide of Chicago on the outside. What’s even more telling about this shot is that Mulligan is being driven home after giving a patronising speech about creating jobs and supporting the minority women of Chicago. We travel through the derelict neighbourhood of the people Mulligan sayshe wants to protect while he presses completely unrelated questioning to his campaign manager. In one take we see not only the gentrification of Chicago as a city, but the fact that these minorities are just pawns in Mulligan’s political game to manufacture positive public image and nothing more. It’s impeccable storytelling executed in just one shot.
In a film which is filled with directorial and storytelling substance, the performances by our ensemble across the board amplify the film and help deliver on that substance. Davis gives one of 2018’s best performances as Veronica. She’s a woman whose drive and strength is visible, yet is often overtaken by moments of lonely vulnerability, which McQueen captures beautifully in impeccably-shot close ups. Debicki is also brilliant as Alice—a woman who has been broken by abusive male power. Rodriguez—who’s most known for being surrounded by a slew of men in the Fast & Furious series—finally gets to share the stage alongside some strong women and is excellent, with Linda’s character connecting strongly with the themes of class and the dependence on men. Daniel Kaluuya delivers the scene-stealing performances of the film as the charismatic, yet psychopathic enforcer for his brother Jamal. The always fantastic Farrell nails Jack Mulligan’s slimy tendencies. It’s unfair to single out any one performance for recognition over another, which is one of the film’s greatest strengths.
The heist itself only takes up a short amount of the film’s 130-minute runtime, but despite being a relatively simplistic one, it’s one of the most tense scenes of the year—thanks to Hans Zimmer’s pulsating and industrial-inspired score. It’s used sparsely throughout but packs a major punch when it’s present.
Ultimately, Widows may not be the best film of 2018, but I think it’s one of the most important ones. We witness what these desperate and utterly broken women have to do to stay alive in a world that doesn’t care for them, a world with no remorse for those deemed unimportant by society. There’s no doubt this is a cynical film but there’s morsels of hope sprinkled throughout. It’s not surprising that a Steve McQueen film is impeccably directed, shot and edited. Whether it be a long take amplifying a theme, or a close up which expresses the anguish of a character, the craft on display is special. Each performance enhances McQueen and Flynn’s screenplay, which provides us with characters who are constantly put in situations of struggle. But most importantly, it articulates in leaps and bounds that women are worthy of much more than a discount male narrative.
Widows is in select Perth cinemas now, and is release Australia-wide on November 29.