For Widows, Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave ; Shame ) has teamed up with writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl ) to make a genre film that is so much more than just that, with a stellar cast that delivers excellence from start to finish. The titular widows are titular for a reason. Their male counterparts are quickly killed off in the impressively aggressive heist-gone-wrong opening scene, after which the stage is theirs. Victoria (the commanding Viola Davis), freshly mourning her husband Harry’s (Liam Neeson) death, is confronted by crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), whose money he stole. She is given a month to pay it all back, with the presence of Manning’s all too willing executioner brother Jatemme (a terrifying Daniel Kaluuya) constantly looming over her.
To complete the mission, Victoria recruits the other women that Harry’s failed robbery left widowed. There’s Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), whose late husband’s debts have left her without the means to provide for her two kids; Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), now forced into a career as an escort by her overbearing mother; and Linda’s part-time babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo), who steps in as driver. None of them criminals by nature, they adapt to the task in a satisfying yet believable way and take back agency over their lives, exceeding their status as “widows”. McQueen allows these women to shine and spends great attention to the choices they make and consequences they face, as women specifically.
A subplot is the election for alderman in a ward that has had its borders redrawn to now include black neighbourhoods. There’s the establishment in the form of Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell, with a questionable accent), son of veteran politician Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall), running against that same crime boss Jamal Manning. These political undertones allows Widows to transcend the action genre and have a deeper social meaning, strengthened by various twists and turns in the plot that will keep the audience in constant suspense. Widows is set in Chicago, a city that lends itself perfectly to the underlying political struggles in the film, although it’s otherwise not much of a presence, apart from the odd flag or background landmark.
As one would expect from Steve McQueen, Widows is shot beautifully and with vivid attention to detail, unconventional for the heist genre. One scene sticks out in particular. With the camera positioned on the outside of Mulligan’s car, we hear his conversation on campaign strategies, but what we see is the stark contrast in Chicago’s urban landscape, as, over the course of a five-minute drive, the houses change from small and lumped together, to large and far apart. It’s symbolic for the rest of the film, packing underlying substance in every moment. Widows is smart and layered and thoroughly entertaining.
Image: David Dettman.