Steve McQueen’s career has been a great example of quality over quantity. In 10 years, he has made only three films, but they are all expertly crafted with an eye for mood and detail. His latest outing is a team-up with Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn for an adaptation of the 80’s BBC mini-series Widows, this time relocated to Chicago. Though an ensemble heist thriller is certainly a departure for McQueen, Widows still manages to be an entertaining and intense experience.
Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriquez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) are the wives of three criminals. Veronica’s husband Harry (Liam Neeson) works for Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and steals money from Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry), as both are running against each other for the position of representing a Chicago ward. Harry and the husbands are all killed in a heist gone wrong, which ends up uniting the wives when Veronica is threatened by Jamal and his brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) into paying the $2 million back. They band together and plan to get the money back from Jack.
The storytelling is easily the most complex of McQueen’s career, as shown by how the opening cuts between the plot starting heist gone wrong and brief flashes of the wives with their husbands. McQueen trusts that audiences will be able to follow the big ensemble, so he showcases their storylines without a clear guiding force, a figure of exposition or even a main character. This choice works the film’s favour because the story still manages to be easy to follow and very unpredictable, due to the lack of convoluted twists and turns or obvious foreshadowing. People might be turned off by this somewhat experimental style and I was to begin with, but as the plot moved forward it started to click for me. If there is one issue, it is that the last 20 minutes wrap up certain story points incredibly quickly and one resolution happens offscreen, which does prevent the climax from having the impact it should have.
Underneath the story is a deeply cynical view of American values and a harsh theme of how money corrupts, as well as a well-integrated commentary on class struggles and racial tensions that helps to update the series into contemporary times. Finally, the female empowerment theme is surprisingly subtle, which is commendable for a film that could have easily gone over the top.
The tone is incredibly serious, but this is earned because there is a strong sense of threat and emotional stakes. Gillian Flynn’s script, however, does prevent the tone from becoming too dark and hopeless by including certain sequences and lines of dialogue that contain a lot of dark humour. Veronica carries a dog around, there’s a comedic sauna sequence and even Operation gets referenced, though all these aspects are used for danger and tension as well as humour.
The actors all bring their A-game, with Viola Davis being great as always at showing toughness but also depression at her loss. Colin Farrell’s accent slips slightly, and Michelle Rodriguez has some weak line readings, but both actors still do good work with the material. The standouts are Elizabeth Debicki and Daniel Kalluya. Debicki gets mileage out of the most vulnerable and outwardly sympathetic character, whilst Kaluuya has never been more threatening. The ensemble is quite well balanced and no one actor is given the spotlight.
The filmmaking is just as realistic and gritty as McQueen’s previous films. Despite there only being one or two long takes, the editing takes its time and does not rush through anything. The bursts of action are fast-paced, intense and low-key. The cinematography is visceral and refreshingly stylistic for a crime thriller, with certain camera angles being very artistic without calling too much attention to themselves. The lack of music also adds to the sense of realism, though when Hans Zimmer’s score comes in it does take away from that, feeling a bit standard and generic.
Widows is Steve McQueen’s most accessible film, but he does not use that as an excuse to phone it in. It is a solid blend of prestige filmmaking and genre-filmmaking that shows that McQueen and Flynn are both more versatile than people have given them credit for. It might not win a lot of Oscars, but it suggests a bright future for crime and heist cinema.