Widows is British director Steve McQueen's first film since 2013's 12 Years a Slave, and his five-year absence from filmmaking was well worth the wait. However, McQueen’s fourth feature is not necessarily what we expected. Aside from being the director's first foray into crime thriller, it’s also a step away from the sole character studies of his previous efforts with a larger ensemble.
An adaptation the 1983 British TV series of the same name, Widows starts with a heist gone wrong. Liam Neeson’s Harry leads a gang of thieves that could easily have starred in their own solid crime drama, but this movie isn’t about them. Instead, it’s about the women they leave behind after their actions cost them their lives, the debt that needs to be paid, and ultimately the grief and identity crisis anyone who has lost a partner faces.
Specifically, this means that Veronica (Viola Davis) has to pick up the pieces and repay the money her late husband took from gangster Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry). With his volatile brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) at his side, Jamal is hoping to enter the political game - and the $2 million owed is desperately needed if he has any chance of taking on Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who has inherited the wealth and name recognition from his recently-retired father (Robert Duvall).
All of these elements bring the pressure onto Veronica, who has to turn to two of the other widows from Harry’s gang, Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez). The three women have to venture into the world their husbands walked in, overcoming the unjust duty thrust upon them by making use of the fact that, as Veronica puts it, “no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off”.
In any other simple genre piece, this would all be window dressing and a means to get to the main event, but Widows makes use of its secondary characters to speak about all manner of issues that affect the city of Chicago, and by extension, America. The mastery of McQueen’s direction, and the screenplay he co-wrote with Gillian Flynn, is that the explorations of race, gender, and privilege are woven into the drama, never detracting from the emotional arcs nor stepping too carefully.
As much as the central premise and subsequent running themes of the movie are worth noting, it’s the execution that makes this thriller stand out from the crowd. McQueen’s choice to slip into snippets of flashback amidst a surprisingly sensitive score from Hans Zimmer is reminiscent at times of Christopher Nolan at his best, but the director’s unique voice shines through.
There are some landmark scenes here that are particularly memorable, whether his camera is weaving in and out of a tense stand-off in a basketball court or sitting on the hood of a car as it takes us from poverty to the affluent neighbourhood just minutes down the road.
The stellar cast elevate the material here, with Neeson giving a brief performance that nonetheless ranks as one of his most emotionally honest in years. Davis is unsurprisingly brilliant here, but it shouldn’t be forgotten how remarkable her ability at getting under a character’s skin is. The standout for me, however, is Kaluuya - who takes what could have been a one-note enforcer role and creates one of the most captivating and terrifying villains in recent memory.
The film runs runs at just over two hours long, but it flies by. If anything, the rumoured original runtime of three hours would’ve been more than welcome, to give more room to delve into these characters and their relationships to one another. However, what we’re left with is plenty to chew on, and wanting to spend more time in this world is perhaps the kindest criticism one can give.
Unfortunately, there’s no commentary from the cast or crew of the film, but in addition to the standard photo gallery and theatrical trailer there is some insight into the film - from the behind-the-scenes feature 'Widows: Unmasked: A Chicago Story'.
This 52-minute documentary is split up into three parts: ‘Plotting the Heist: The Story,’ which focuses on the pre-production of the film; ‘Assembling the Crew: Production,’ which delves into McQueen’s first foray into stunt filmmaking; and ‘The Scene of the Crime: Locations,’ which explores why the city of Chicago was such an important setting to tell this story.
Each of the actors have more to say about the film than simple promotional soundbites, whether it’s Rodriguez revealing how the director pushed her beyond her comfort zone or Davis’ insights into the representation the film’s central interracial relationship provides. The locations segment is the best of the bunch, detailing how the crew used the city and the individual interior settings to best compliment the story.
The central behind the scenes feature has more to say than it intends, as it includes several references to scenes not included in the finished product - lending credence to the idea that a lot of material was sacrificed for a more streamlined experience. More importantly, they highlight the care put into the film, and how it speaks to our times.
Dir: Steve McQueen | Cast: Jon Bernthal, Liam Neeson, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Viola Davis | Writers: Gillian Flynn (screenplay by), Lynda La Plante (based on "Widows" by), Steve McQueen (screenplay by)