WIDOWS is a mighty fine thriller. If you consider it a thriller, which I do. A dramatic one. A Steve McQueen film always leaves you emotionally spent and with plenty of food for thought, but this is easily his most outright enjoyable work. You might even leave with a smidgen of hope in your heart.
When her career criminal husband’s (Liam Neeson) failed heist results in the demise of his entire gang, Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) recruits her fellow widows for one last job to secure their future. Meanwhile, a highly contested Chicago ward election is taking a morally dubious turn…
Steve McQueen casts flawlessly and there really isn’t a weak link in this cast. Every character is given room to breathe. Viola Davis bears the brunt of the dramatic lifting in the lead, but Elizabeth Debicki’s performance as the used and abused Alice also leaves a mark, proving her versatility and lightness of touch in a tricky role. Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo arguably have more conventional role to fill playing working mums, but they have chemistry with the others and their characters’ skills prove invaluable.
McQueen has one of the clearest, cleanest visual sensibilities of any director working today. You can tell he’s an artist because every shot is a (sometimes grisly, sometimes grim) painting. The action is no-nonsense and visceral, the most emotionally fraught moments held in close-up, the city of Chicago and its many problems another character.
Violence in a McQueen film always has weight and consequences. In the opening heist-gone-awry scene, some of the crew are offed without introduction, others get a few lines to register how far south things have gone. Later Daniel Kaluuya’s terrifying enforcer plays with his victims like a big cat before dispatching them and the widows’ big night is far from free of bloodshed.
The strongest stretch in a strong film is the gang making their plans and assigning roles in the upcoming heist. Some of the challenges ahead require creative solutions and every member of the gang has to make the most of their respective strengths and to think on her feet to some extent. While it’s always great to see a group of interesting characters not defined by their gender, what marks the widows out even beyond them exploiting the fact that “No one will think we have the balls to pull this off” is that they’re allowed to be as flawed, as fallible, as their late husbands who managed to get themselves killed. They’re capable, intelligent and determined but they make mistakes and have to improvise to survive.
I can definitely see us getting more socially conscious thrillers like this in next few years. This has all the elements of a polished and visceral heist movie (it even has a propulsive Hans Zimmer score) but it also has something to say about the world. Inequalities in contemporary American society are neatly and punchily summed up by a long-take of Farrell’s politician being driven away from a rally in a deprived area, rounding a couple of corners to pull up at the very nice house that serves as his campaign headquarters.
About the only thing I had an issue with was a slight storytelling misstep midway through the film that lessened the impact of a key moment of drama towards the end. McQueen didn’t need to show his hand so early, and if he hadn’t the ending might have hit with more of a bang than it already does. Very minor problems aside, Widows is a stylish, gripping and resonant crime drama with layered characterisation and a conscience. SSP