Steve McQueen’s heist film ‘Widows’ is the American crime genre at its fullest potential

 By Dan Cava

November 16, 2018

Widows is cold-hearted but warm-blooded, a masterful thriller that combines heady social critique with delicious genre pleasures.

Working from a script he co-wrote with Gillian Flynn, director Steven McQueen (12 Years A Slave) has given us the rare gift of grownup entertainment. The last time I recall experiencing a light/heavy integration this successful, where crowd-pleasing and commentary coexisted this comfortably, was Gone Girl, also written by Flynn and crafted by a master director.

Liam Neeson as Harry Rawlings and Viola Davis as Veronica Rawlings. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

The widowing in Widows happens almost immediately, as our three leads (Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, and Michelle Rodriguez) lose their criminal husbands (Liam Neeson, Jon Bernthal, and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, respectively) in a brutal and fatal burglary gone wrong. Before his death, Veronica Rawlings’ (Davis) now dead husband Harry (Neeson) stole from the wrong guy. That wrong guy is Jamal Manning (Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry), a black man who needs the missing $2 million to run for a Chicago city political office against Tom Mulligan, the incumbent white man (Colin Farrell) whose family has held sway over Manning’s mostly black district for generations. Manning wants his money back now or else. With the help of instructions left behind by her husband, Veronica recruits her fellow widows to help enact a daring high-dollar heist.

We soon come to see that, long before their husbands’ deaths, the three women have been widowed in other subtle but no less damaging ways. For various reasons, all stemming from their positions as women in society, they’ve each been on their own for a long time, excluded from the dignities, decisions and privileges of a world run by men. Like the proverbial widows of myth, their circumstances have coerced them into a lifelong tangle of disempowerment and dependency, unable to determine their own fates or address their own needs. Now, burdened with both the deaths and debts of their male partners, they need to forge a new path. 

Michelle Rodriguez as Linda Perelland Elizabeth Debicki as Alice Gunner WIDOWS. Photo: Suzanne Tenner courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Widows has a relatively simple setup with layers that emerge, build and twist. Flynn and McQueen‘s screenplay reveals itself to be an enormous (and enormously clever) contraption that hums along beautifully and seems to cover all the bases. I say “seems” because the magic of this kind of genre writing is not the absence of plot holes but the skillful de-prioritization of them. An airtight story is less important than the feeling of the airtight-ness created by the right combination of character, circumstance, setting and pacing.

The Rotten Tomatoes critical consensus says Widows “mixes popular entertainment with a message.” With respect to the well meaning copywriters at RT, McQueen is far too sophisticated a filmmaker for “messages.” What Widows has is nerve, the unblinking gaze of a visual artist who insists on letting complicated things be complicated, even (in this case, especially) if those things appear in an entertainment. Instead of the reductive world of lessons, Widows works in the realms of dynamics: the dynamics between men and women, rich and poor, black and white, young and old, cop and criminal, husband and wife, parent and child. We are educated by seeing these dynamics at work. Some are upended. Some are upheld. There are no messages, but there is meaning.

Daniel Kaluuya as Jatemme Manning and Brian Tyree Henry as Jamal Manning. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Legendary film critic Roger Ebert aptly said, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” Steven McQueen as a master of presentation. Working again with director of photography Sean Bobbitt, McQueen’s camera moves, and sometimes stands still, with tremendous intention. Widows feels completely shorn of extra weight, and yet somehow abounds with moments of uncommonly precise observation, pieces of borrowed reality expertly inserted into McQueen’s rendition of Chicago.

It’s the details that suggest an entire ecosystem in motion. The crackle of a powerful urban preacher’s microphone, pushed its limit as he commands his congregation’s attention and their political choices. The passionate kissing between two married adults that’s a lot more erotic for the participants than for us the viewers. The angry podcasts playing in an enforcer’s car, fanning his social rage. in one bravura shot, the camera rests on the windshield of Tom Mulligan’s car as he drives, revealing the short distance between Mulligan’s untouchably rich neighborhood and the economically bombed out townhouses of his constituents.

Colin Farrell as Jack Mulligan. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

We might expect these flourishes in the kind of dead serious dramas that McQueen normally delivers (12 Years A Slave, Hunger, Shame) but to see them in a genre movie, especially one this much fun, is a downright rarity. The cast is uniformly excellent because they’re some of our most compelling actors, but also because they seem to be having the time of their lives with material that lets them go in compelling directions. Viola Davis gets to do literally everything we love watching her do: hold a gun, make blunt statements, shed tears, be “fierce.” Liam Neeson subverts his Taken character with touches of frail masculinity. Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya shows up and this time he gets to be the sociopath. Robert Duvall deepens his scowl, Elizabeth Debicki weaponizes her beauty, Colin Farrell squirms under the weight of his own power, and Cynthia Erivo is both a nanny and getaway driver. Flynn’s dialogue has a pulpy bite, and she and McQueen roll out surprises, revelations, and payoffs that had the theater audience gasping and cheering. The movie is a blast.

There are only a handful of filmmakers working in this arena at this level. Like Coppola’s The Godfather, Scorsese’s Goodfellas, or Michael Mann’s Heat (the latter seems to be major inspiration here), McQueen’s stunning heist film isn’t a mere genre piece elevated by good writing and directing. It is the American crime genre working at its fullest potential. Widows is one of the best movies of 2018.

Star Rating: 5 out of 5

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