Steve McQueen may be a director that hails from the U.K. but he has successfully demonstrated his ability to venture into the darkest depths of American society. Previously, he crafted a harrowing portrait of historical American slavery with the Best Picture winner 12 Years A Slave. Now, with Widows, he has constructed a modern-day morality tale about race, police brutality, gender, class, and politics which presents itself under the guise of a popcorn heist thriller.
While the film does demonstrate an exciting buildup to the climactic heist, at its core, it’s really about trying to survive in a lawless world that forces people of certain racial and/or socioeconomic backgrounds to fend for themselves. Even some of the movie’s antagonists are victims of this dog-eat-dog world which only aides the complexity of the storyline.
After Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) stole $2 million from him and died during the robbery, rising politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) forces Harry’s wife Veronica (Viola Davis) to pay him back so that he can fund his campaign and leave his criminal past behind. With her life on the line, Veronica enlists the help of the wives of the late robbers who aided Harry in his heist: Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda Perrelli (Michelle Rodriguez). Eventually, hairdresser Belle (Cynthia Erivo) becomes involved in the widows’ plans and Jamal’s political rival, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), finds himself caught in the middle.
Despite the film having a pretty packed ensemble, almost everyone gets to have their moment in the sun. That being said, it is mainly the four female leads that run the show. Viola Davis portrays a perfect anti-heroine in the form of Veronica Rawlins, a woman who attempts to be as cutthroat as the men trying to intimidate her; Elizabeth Debicki is a bonafide scene stealer as Alice, a battered housewife turned bewitching agent of vengeance; Michelle Rodriguez does the best work of her career by far as the skeptic yet willing participant Linda; and Cynthia Erivo gives a performance of subtle loyalty and fierce determination as Belle, creating an amazing one two punch this year with this performance and her work in Bad Times At The El Royale.
As for the rest of the ensemble, the standouts include Brian Tyree Henry who plays the shady crime boss turned aspiring alderman Jamal with shades of grey and Daniel Kaluuya as Jamal’s brother/enforcer Jatemme. After playing the likeable protagonist Chris Washington in Get Out and receiving an Oscar nomination, Daniel Kaluuya pulls a complete 180 and sends chills down your spine as an irredeemable sociopath. Even when he’s standing in the background without saying a word, he still holds your attention. Also, Jacki Weaver gets to own the few scenes she has as Alice’s abusive mother Agnieszka, playing her as if she’s a more lenient version of “Smurf” Cody from Animal Kingdom.
Much like with his previous work, Steve McQueen shows how great he is with his actors. He also manages to weave in his traditional use of long takes. In my opinion, the best sequence where this technique is used is one where Jack Mulligan is leaving a campaign stop in an impoverished section of his city ward. The camera continuously focuses on the car he’s in while it’s moving and shows it going from his campaign stop to the well-off neighborhood where he resides, demonstrating the glaring disconnect between him and the citizens he’s trying to work with.
Although the film’s themes are sometimes stated through expositional dialogue from Gillian Flynn’s brilliant screenplay, there are moments like the one above where Steve McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt let the camera demonstrate the thematic material. Credit should also go to editor Joe Walker for knowing when to cut away after each long take and for letting the two-hour-long film move at a heightened yet steady pace.
With Widows, Steve McQueen is officially 4 for 4 with his filmography. It is also a pitch-perfect demonstration of an auteurist director demonstrating his singular vision in a more mainstream canvas. Despite it providing the flare of a popcorn action flick, it doesn’t necessarily focus on the narrow “good guy vs. bad guy” conflict present within a typical Hollywood action thriller. It’s about survival of the fittest and people literally fighting their way to see tomorrow in this cruel society we live in.