Credit: Film4. Description: the poster for ‘Widows’.
“Four armed robbers are killed in a failed heist attempt, only to have their widows step up to finish the job.” Initially, this Wikipedia summary of Widows says little to imply that it could be ground-breaking. Heist films have already reinvented themselves many times over (see: Ocean’s Eleven, Inception, and Baby Driver) and from Ghostbusters to Ocean’s 8, all-female-led casts have thankfully become increasingly prevalent. This feature seemed better suited for a blockbuster-oriented director, and so I was surprised that Steve McQueen, better known for thoughtful period pieces, announced he would direct. On paper, Widows’ premise looks like a step-down from his past efforts, which explored pertinent topics of race, ethnicity, and socio-economic class through films such as Hunger and 12 Years A Slave. How could he use a heist film, constrained by conventions that seek more to entertain and thrill than beget introspection, as a vehicle to talk about anything substantial?
However, like a master thief studying blueprints for a house before robbery, it is McQueen’s flawless execution and intimate knowledge of the genre (which enables him to subvert it) that elevates Widows from being more than your average heist film. In his hands, Widows becomes a poignant and sobering character study about how to deal with loss, abandonment, and hurt, while exploring the complexities of police brutality, interracial marriage, and politics. Rather than collapse under the weight of what it wishes to address, McQueen uses the skeleton of the heist film as a foundation to adroitly layer and imbue these themes; it becomes impossible to simply “enjoy the film” as it is, for each scene forces viewers to think about larger issues at hand.
Widows takes place almost entirely in Chicago and while scenic shots of Lake Michigan abound, McQueen quickly abandons this touristy depiction and throws viewers head-first into the dark and violent underbelly of the city; the Chicago Transit Authorities’ colourful trains only serve to highlight the run-down South Side neighbourhoods while public gyms can become scenes of murder and crime. Yet his treatment and presentation of these realities are meant to highlight how they are systemic and results of the empty promises of power-hungry politicians whose claims to “improve” such conditions are never actually realised. Rather than simply state this anathema, McQueen chooses to show it; in a stand-out sequence, as politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) gets into his vehicle after rallying supporters in the South Side of Chicago. As the car moves throughout the city and finally lands in Mulligan’s affluent ward, viewers see just how segregated Chicago truly is and thus the hypocrisy of how such wealth and poverty live so close to each other. Indeed, the beauty of Widows is in how it sprinkles in commentary like this without feeling forced or contrived. When one of the widows, Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki), incredulously asks where she could possibly buy three Glocks, Veronica (Viola Davis) sarcastically retorts, “This is America.”
Such an interaction is one of many examples where the impressive consortium of actors and actresses McQueen has assembled here are at their A-game. The respect is mutual; no one is cashing in a performance and thus McQueen feels no need to bank on the marketability of their ethos. Viola Davis’ Veronica truly steals the show as the widow of the late Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson); she is ruthless and determined to finish her husband’s work, yet the moments where Davis allows for vulnerability are heart-wrenching and superb; you truly ache for what she has to go through. Another standout is Daniel Kaluuya, who transforms into the absolutely terrifying Jatemme, the brother and enforcer of Jack Mulligan’s political rival Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Every time he appears it is hard to not tense up – someone either dies or is seriously injured by the time he retreats off-screen.
With the focus on developing character, choreographing fight sequences can seem like an afterthought, but McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt portray them justly. Car chases are no sleek or polished affair but dishevelling and chaotic; the camera shakes and blurs in and out of focus with the only soundtrack being the uneven barrage of gunfire. Hans Zimmer’s unsettling score seems more appropriate for a horror film; as the widows get ready to complete their mission, the music oscillates from chillingly quiet to histrionically chest-thumping, as if to warn them of the danger ahead.
Widows is a big film both in terms of its cast and the themes it wishes to address. From its violent and bombastic opening sequence to its minimalist moments, the film is a taut and intense piece of work and masterfully marries blockbuster action with social commentary. Ultimately, it excels in a league all of its own, breaking necks and bodies just as it breaks ground.