A couple sharing a tender and intimate embrace upon waking cuts to a flurry of chaos and violence. And so begins Widows, the latest from director Steve McQueen, the man who brought us such visceral and raw films as 12 Years a Slave, Shame, and Hunger. This time he co-writes with Gillian Flynn, the author whose thriller Gone Girl became an international sensation.
After a job goes wrong and four criminals led by Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) are killed by the police the political hopeful that the group robbed, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), needs the money back for his campaign against his privileged rival Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell). Manning puts the pressure on Harry’s widow Veronica (Viola Davis) to pay the debt. She decides to enlist the help of the wives of the other men killed that night; Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and Amanda (Carrie Coon) along with driver Belle (Cynthia Erivo), to pull off Harry’s planned next job and get themselves out of the various messes that their husbands left them in.
This is a film about so many things. The ways that men can hurt women and the resulting dynamic between the two, class and racial divides, and political machinations, which when all put together takes a concept that could have been a very simple and straightforward heist movie - that we have seen dozens of times before - and makes it a bold and hitting statement on the state of modern America. Steve McQueen brings his impeccable style to the project, it is full of the kind of long takes and dynamic uses of the frame that we’ve come to expect from him. Yet as much as it is sleek and stylish to look at, it is also genuinely thrilling as well, punctuated by some well-orchestrated moments of levity that really bring out a human aspect.
The absolute soul of the film is Viola Davis as Veronica, the head of the group and mourning wife of the crime gang’s leader Harry. In every scene she is authoritative and clearly in charge, but all the while we can see that she is being emotionally torn apart by grief at losing her son years before and her husband’s death. It is, however, Elizabeth Debicki’s Alice that has the most growth and development of the characters. She is someone who has been beaten down all her life. Not only by her husband (Jon Bernthal) but by her mother (an underused Jacki Weaver), and society’s view and expectations of her, and throughout the film she grows and realises just what she is capable of. That is not to say that Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo don’t hold their own, we get a firm sense of who they are and why they are here. Erivo in particular has a great little scene facing off against Davis and is just unflinching. In this movie of female voices there are still a couple who get lost in the shuffle. We never get much from Carrie Coon’s Amanda, the fourth widow, which really would have added something, particularly when certain bits of information come to light.
The whole cast is great, but Daniel Kaluuya deserves a specific mention as Jatemme, Jamal’s brother and enforcer. He just oozes a ruthless menace behind his eyes and each time he arrives onscreen he commands the room, including one scene with a small detail that I loved which sees him very deliberately pausing before threatening someone to finish the page of the book he’s reading. You just dread what might happen should anyone encounter him.
What really makes the film special though is everything that is happening as a backdrop to the women’s plans, particularly in terms of the social and political climate. There's Jack - the privileged white man who was essentially born into his position of office - and Jamal - the working man who believes that he can do the most for the community. They could not be more different in terms of class and race, and yet both are equally capable of criminal dealings and it is this which is the impetus of both heists, the initial robbery that went wrong and the new plan that Veronica puts in place.
There are two scenes in particular that really draw a line under the whole social aspects of the film. One is an utterly gut-wrenching moment where we find out what happened to Veronica’s son that feels very much taken from today’s headlines. The other is where Jack Mulligan and his wife, a silent supportive living accessory in just about every other scene we see her in, talk in a car and she chews him out for his lack of conviction. We don’t see the two, instead McQueen chooses to focus on the outside of the car in a long tracking shot as they travel - driven by a black staff member - from a rough, low-income area of the neighbourhood to a more affluent one. It is very much McQueen’s statement of intent using these things as a contextual backdrop to the story of the women and their heist.
In Widows, which is based on Linda La Plante's 80s mini-series of the same name, Steve McQueen may have made his most mainstream film yet. It is action packed, tense, and features a strong cast at the top of their game, but still presents it with all the style and substance that we have come to expect from his filmmaking. A powerful opener to this year’s London Film Festival.