Four features into his career, Steve McQueen has firmly established himself as one of the best directors – if not the best – of his generation. While his previous three films, Hunger, Shame and 12 Years a Slave, were each distinct works, they each shared a straddling of the space between narrative and arthouse cinema. While all three films were certainly narrative films, they were structured such that story was subservient to sensation. Bodies positioned as physical incarnations of emotional, political – and literal – imprisonment.
Widows is different. Adapted from Lynda La Plante’s British miniseries, McQueen’s fourth feature tells the story of four women who commit a heist after their husbands’ death with a tight focus on narrative. That premise, paired with the film’s generic neo-noir posters, promises an elevated genre film. But while the final product exhibits cosmetic similarities with generic features of the heist movie – focusing on ‘getting the gang together’, planning the heist and ultimately executing it with a few twists along the way – Widows resolutely resists the conventions of the genre it resembles.
For starters, Widows is rarely thrilling or exciting: the primary tone of the genre. The opening heist-gone-wrong – climaxing in a fiery explosion – is crudely enthralling, but the film that follows is soaked in a pervasive sense of dread that drowns any sparks of excitement. Tension is ever-present, but awash with fatalism. The screenplay – from McQueen and Gillian Flynn – spends its first act deftly cutting between a swathe of subplots, with connections and context largely left to the audience.
This isn’t about a charming protagonist grifting their way to profit against over-confident antagonists, but about a strong but traumatised widow – Viola Davis’ Veronica Rawlings – backed into a corner by a crime boss turned would-be-politician (Jamal Manning, played by Brian Tyree Henry). In the mix are Veronica’s eventual partners – Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo – each fundamentally failed by the men no longer in their lives, along with Colin Farrell’s sneering skeeve Jack Mulligan, running for the alderman position recently vacated by his father (Robert Duvall) for less-than-altruistic reasons.
The centre of this sprawling story is Veronica. She’s a fascinating character; introduced as soft and loving (the opening shot is of her canoodling with her husband, played by Liam Neeson), the events of the prologue (and other trauma, alluded to and eventually outlined) render her hard and ruthless. She’s not some plucky, ‘girl power’ heroine cobbled together by committee (lookin’ at you, Ocean’s Eight), but nor does she possess the kind of iron-clad confidence you might expect. She’s a damaged woman assuming an ill-fitting cloak of rigid masculinity in a world where masculinity connotes corruption and violence, disloyalty and cruelty.
This is the core of why Widows feels distinct from its genre forebears for me, however closely its storyline might resemble them. I have a great deal of respect for genre films, I should clarify. Embracing or subverting their tropes allows filmmakers to interrogate (or sometimes unthinkingly reiterate) the underlying ideology beyond the genre. Heist films are, almost invariably, about masculine swagger. How men can exploit their confidence, their intelligence, their pure manly power to defeat and humiliate other men. Rich men defeat other rich men whose primary crime is to fail to cloak their arrogance with sufficient charm. Widows sees this structure as a lie; a way to excuse away bad men behaving badly with a sheen of style.
Not that McQueen is light on style here. He’s always been a distinctive, precise director, able to use unconventional framings and memorable choices to elevate scenes that would’ve been generic in another director’s hands. He maintains that approach in a procedural context here, drilling down into the finer details in a way that feels rigorous rather than entertaining. In what other heist film do you follow – in fine-grained detail – how guns can be safely sourced? McQueen turns this scene into a critique of America’s obsession with guns, its racism and even manages to shove in a laugh. This is an unapologetically political film, but as always McQueen’s direction ensures that the aesthetic and the ideology are intimately intertwined.
There’s one shot in particular that’s hard to forget. It’s designed that way, of course – I’ve only read a handful of reviews, but it’s invariably singled out – but McQueen’s never been one to shy away from showiness. Following Farrell’s character, Jack, from a sparsely-attended rally promoting a foundation supporting minority women (a minor moment that proves both politically and narratively important, because this is one tight-as-fuck screenplay), we observe his slick black town car from a camera mounted on the front bonnet. A camera placement that initially feels showy for the sake of showy, throughout the short scene it simultaneously highlights the ubiquity of racism in contemporary Chicago (we listen to Jack interrogate his wife about interracial affairs before the camera gently pans to observe the Mulligans’ black chauffeur) and the class disparity, with broken-down slums transforming into lush mansions in a matter of seconds. Honestly, my only complaint about the film’s construction is that it perhaps has one too many flashbacks explaining events already made implicit in the dialogue, but it’s a minor quibble.
All this style and carefully-considered ideology would be nothing without a capable cast of performers, and it’s here that Widows’ riches are truly apparent. The cast is stacked from top to bottom, but there are two performances in particular that warrant singling out: Debicki and Daniel Kaluuya. Kaluuya, having earned an Oscar nomination for his extraordinarily empathetic work in Get Out, here offers an entirely different performance. As Jamal’s brother and muscle, he offers an unblinking villain with an authority of threat around him that favourably recalls Joe Pesci in Goodfellas and Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men.
Debicki, meanwhile, has spent the last few years carving out a niche as a capable but underused actress. Early scenes with her as an abused wife and cowed daughter (to another Aussie actress, Jacki Weaver) suggest more of the same, but the screenplay lends her rare humanity. She’s a ditz – and, for a time, a sex worker – but her path towards empowerment transcends cliché through her thoughtful, layered performance. She quavers between weakness and strength in nearly every scene, increasingly landing on the latter as the film progresses. Ultimately, she finds strength in femininity – much like Widows itself.