Cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson, Garret Dillahunt, Carrie Coon, Jacki Weaver, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Lukas Haas, Matt Walsh, Kevin J. O'Connor, Michael Harney
Director: Steve McQueen
Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Steve McQueen is a renowned visual artist, and if he wasn’t already an Oscar-winning director, he’d be doing just fine on the art gallery circuit. The austere manner of his filmmaking; with those precise compositions, intricate mise-en-scène, and artful posing of actors within the frame, has helped him gain traction as a legitimate auteur with films like Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years a Slave (for which he netted that Academy Award). When word leaked he would be adapting a 1980’s British miniseries and trying his hand at the heist genre, there were reasons to be worried. Would McQueen forgo genre excitement by luxuriating in self-serious political metaphors, or could he actually let rip with a popcorn crowd-pleaser?
Well, the answer is a bit of both. What’s noteworthy about Widows is that McQueen has indeed made a commercially-minded film that also doesn’t skimp on his artistry. There’s a heist involved, but the movie really isn’t about the heist. There is action, but this is not primarily an action picture. Instead, McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn focus more on the collision between modern day Chicago politics, class division, neoliberal racism, and the inner lives of the characters. It’s apparent during the opening moments that this will be a different breed of thriller as scenes of Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis) and her husband, Harry (Liam Neeson) passionately kissing in bed is cross-cut with a getaway gone wrong where Harry and his team of criminals die at the hands of police. From there, the focus shifts to the men’s spouses struggling to survive after the fallout, including Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), whose clothing store is seized by bookies due to her husband’s debts, and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), an abused woman encouraged by her mother (Jacki Weaver) to sign up for an escort service catering to affluent men.
McQueen and Flynn’s screenplay sets up a large network of characters, shows us their allegiances, and then methodically allows the plot to move forward with a series of vignettes highlighting some particular form of sociopolitical unrest. Crucial power players include Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a crime boss hoping to get out of the game by running for political office, his sociopath brother (Daniel Kaluuya) who doles out punishment in menacing fashion, and their immediate competition, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who hopes to continue the dynasty of his racist father (Robert Duvall). When Jamal shows up at Veronica’s home informing her that Harry robbed $2 million from his campaign fund and that she has one month to pay back the debt, she locates one of Henry’s notebooks with details of a planned heist and decides to take matters into her own hands.
There is a lot going on in Widows, and there are times when the narrow scope of the feature-length format limits some of McQueen’s ambitions. This is one of those rare instances where one wishes the film were even longer in order to accommodate the mix of intimate character drama and sprawling The Wire-esque narrative. Still, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt does wonders within the confines of the film’s running time; elegantly framing scenes through mirrors and planes of glass in order to give us multiple viewpoints of the action. Probably the most ostentatious shot has the camera locked down on the hood of Farrell’s car as he leaves a rally in a poor section of town only to drive a few blocks away to the wealthier district. As the camera slowly pivots, the class disparity is clear; as is the partly shrouded face of the black driver who must silently endure the white politician’s discriminatory rant. Such visual touches occur throughout, and are never used for showboating purposes, but instead to deepen the film’s overriding themes.
Once Veronica begins recruiting her team to pull off the $2 million heist, which includes Linda, Alice, and late arrival Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a ripped babysitter with a jogging streak, Widows leans into its genre trappings with satisfying results. There’s legitimate tension, for example, in the actual heist, even as the sequence itself fairly brief in terms of screen time, but the biggest thrills here are character-driven. The scenes where Henry’s Jamal and Farrell’s Mulligan face off are razor-sharp, Kaluuya’s dead-eyed stare and penchant for violence is chilling, and Davis conveys so much emotion through her face (from grief, confusion, anger, and finally, contentment) that Veronica emerges as a fully flawed woman worth rooting for. The film’s one major mistake involves a framing device with a significant character seen only in flashback who meets an untimely demise at the hands of police. It’s an instance where McQueen and Flynn are trying too hard to press timely political signifiers into an already busy narrative, and the emotional fallout of this thread feels awkwardly handled.
Rather than simply apply an arthouse aesthetic to a standard heist plot, McQueen fully commits to his commercial tendencies by buying into the narrative and most importantly, his characters. In this way, Widows lacks the kind of sniffy looking down on genre one often gets when prestige filmmakers try their hand at mainstream fare. There are important sociopolitical issues threading throughout Widows, but the film isn’t weighed down by their importance. Instead, the social context can be found by simply watching women fight back against a system built to keep them down, and maybe even having the balls to pull it off.