Director: Steve McQueen
15 | 2h 9min | Crime , Drama , Romance | 6 November 2018 (UK)
Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave) trades his icily elegant arthouse-minded fare for a team-up with co-writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) to bring us Widows, a propulsive, exciting and intelligent genre piece that once again gives star Viola Davis a stage to showcase quality acting. The concept of Widows - that a group of four widowed women, whose dead husbands were all part of the same heist crew, would team up themselves to finish the last job in a desperate attempt to gain financial freedom - had me hungry for this film from the moment it was announced, being a huge fan of the sort of slickly constructed and thematically weighty urban crime sagas that Michael Mann once delivered with the likes of Heat. But credit should be given where credit is due, Widows might look like a sort of ‘female Heat’ but it actually a remake of the very popular British 80s TV series of the same name, which McQueen has admitted in interviews to being a huge fan of. But a remake of this kind now, in the #metoo era and with the financial crash still causing a major hangover, brings with it extra resonance.
I did not cast Widows, but if you had set me the task of doing so, Viola Davis would have been top of my list. She is perfect as Veronica, a downtown Chicago teacher’s union rep and the defacto leader of the quartet of widows-turned-heist crew, a role she is forced into when her career-criminal husband Harry (Liam Neeson) is killed along with his crew in the opening minutes of the film in, what must be said, a very thrilling action sequence largely shot from the back of Harry’s crew’s bullet-ridden getaway truck looking out at the mayhem behind them as they race on. Harry and Veronica enjoyed a comfortable middle class life, with Veronica seemingly knowing little about the precise details of Harry’s work (though she clearly knows he was crooked), but although Veronica has her own career, Harry’s death leaves her with an inherited ‘debt’ that has the side effect of pulling her into the murk of local city politics. The money Harry was seen boosting with his four man team in the film’s opening sequence was, in fact, the political war chest of Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry), a local crime boss turned legit alderman candidate (alderman is a sort of powerful local council figure) determined to be the Chicago 18th district’s first black representative. Despite his desire to gain the kind of power and prestige that his white opponent James McCullen (Colin Farrell) has had since his birth into one of the city’s oldest political hegemonies, Jamal is still a guy from the streets, and lets Veronica know it by busting into her house and openly threatening her to return the same amount of stolen money in one month, no matter what. Problem is, Veronica doesn’t have that kind of money, and the original cash pile burned up in Harry’s van with his body.
With the emotional and physical stakes economically assembled for us, McQueen gets the female widows team on screen swiftly; and they have to be thrown together quickly because Veronica is running out of time. Davis is immensely watchable as a woman with her back to the wall who is just too intelligent and desperate to give into panic, even as her laser focus makes her an increasingly chilly figure. Armed with Harry’s old heist job notebook and enough savings to fund a small operation out of her husband’s old hideout, Veronica recruits fellow widows Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) plus her broke babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo) to her ballsy attempt to plot and carry out the biggest heist Harry had started laying out in his notes. The fact Veronica’s recruitment pitch has an element of threat to it (Linda snorts that Veronica might sell their names to Manning if they refuse to sign up) is one of many signs that she is not a woman to be gotten in the way of.
There is much else to chew on when it comes to the dynamics of the four women. Despite Belle also being black, she finds no natural ally in Veronica, who is immensely suspicious of her as she is both not the intended recruit for the getaway car driver role and not a paid-up ‘widow’. Alice is from a notably lower class than Veronica and was also caught in an abusive relationship with her husband, something that seems to rankle Veronica, who treats her dismissively and assumes she will fail any task set to her. All of the four female leads acquit themselves well, each bringing out an unexpected seam of resourcefulness or some surprising twist to their character, whether it is Rodriguez playing pleasingly against type as a world-weary pragmatist or Debicki showing flair for taking the nervy and pegged-as-white-trash Linda towards a place of growing confidence - even swagger - alongside skilfully delivering most of the few comedy beats that this otherwise grim film finds time for. What these mismatched women do have in common is both the cruel reality that their men left them little to nothing, and the ironic fact that they might benefit from no one thinking, as Veronica notes in a steely pep talk, that they have the balls to pull this off.
Watching these great actresses going about their burglary business and finding ways to get the key pieces of information they want is entertaining enough, but McQueen both surrounds them with a colourful cast of politicians, thugs and ambiguous friend/foe fence-sitters to spice things up, and laces their journey to full-blown heist crew with torn-from-the-headlines political commentary. Having Harry’s last job involved ripping off a major black political candidate means the stark reality of America’s rich-poor divide and the fallow from deeply embedded political corruption can form part of this version of Widow’s canvas quite smoothly, with enough attention given to these elements that they don’t feel like bolt-ons. Casting Colin Farrell as the outwardly slick but secretly troubled alderman shoe-in Jack Mulligan is a sensible move, as Farrell can do charmingly sleazy or sleazily charming in his sleep, but I was blown away by the chill factor radiated by rising star Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) as Jamal’s sociopathith brother and chief fixer Jatemme. Like the rest of the characters that circle the women, neither Jack nor Jatemme are reduced to the one-dimensional, with Jack being shown behind closed doors to resent his elderly politico veteran father Tom’s unabashed racism and long history of corrupt dealings which now threatens to drag his son down, whilst Jatemme is rarely seen without a book or Spanish language audio training track even when he is setting up to deliver a beat-down.
As for the setting of Chicago city, McQueen and DP Sean Bobbit perhaps best paint for us the desperation and divide that has set into the city’s bones when they execute a bravura single-take from the POV of the front of Jack Mulligan’s car as it cruises from Manning’s ratty HQ on the south side to Jack’s sumptuous redbrick five-bedroom; a short drive in that it takes mere minutes, but one that starkly takes us across the chasm between the run-down and the well-heeled. It is the kind of city where, as Veronica starkly puts it to her rookie team, you are on your own.