Steve McQueen is achieving something rare in modern filmmaking: he is a known-name director who does not adhere to auteur theory. With four feature films under his belt, McQueen has ventured into multiple genres, engaging with them using different filmmaking styles.
In Widows, his latest, he takes on the heist genre. With shades of Michael Mann, he takes a genre that is often used for flashy feel-good (see: Ocean’s 8) or gritty schlock (see: Den of Thieves and Hurricane Heist) stories and grounds it in character drama. The result: a deeply tense film with a lot on its mind.
In Chicago, a group of men are gunned down in the middle of a robbery. Their wives (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, and Elizabeth Debicki), after threats from the victims of their husbands’ crime, decide to pull off a heist of their own in order to settle their debts. Using her late husband’s (Liam Neeson) detailed plans, Veronica (Davis) takes point and dishes out marching orders to the other women.
While they plan the heist, a political chess game is underfoot between two candidates vying for a local alderman position. With a dubious special election called after the current alderman’s (Robert Duvall) health concerns, his affluent son Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) tries to quash his competition, the (comparatively) more of-the-people Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), with threats and slippery discourse.
These two plots criss-cross and ultimately collide in a phenomenally tense way. In the interim, there are numerous pieces of plot. Each character has their own individual trajectory, and we are dropped in media res into all of them. While some of these pieces are lost to the climax and resolution, creating dangling loose threads, the overall benefit of the plot density makes Widows an engaging experience from start to finish.
Heist films can be vacant, trite, or altogether too showy. With Widows, McQueen does not sacrifice character for plot. He accomplishes this by not focusing whole cloth on the heist itself. It is not the grand centerpiece, what the film has been driving toward. It is a set piece filled with tension and stakes, but it feels realistically quick and merciless. The centerpiece of the film is, instead, the bitter lives of these characters and their attempts to transcend their bitter states.
The character work is matched by an ensemble of performances that speaks for itself. The trio of women have this seamless chemistry, able to let their characters contest with and bond with each other at will. The only one of the three whose performance falters is Rodriguez, and that is merely a symptom of the script giving her short shrift.
The villainous characters (and, to be sure, there are no truly heroic characters in the film) also are aided by nuanced performances. Colin Farrell’s accent might stray (he never really nails the Chicago sound), but he dukes it out with Duvall and Henry in a few lightning scenes. Henry and Daniel Kaluuya, who plays his enforcer brother, are similarly electric. It is possible that Kaluuya is presenting us the most ruthless screen villain of the 2010s; whenever he is on screen one reflexively tenses.
McQueen’s Chicago is one where everyone, in one way or another, is a thief. Our protagonists steal out of necessity. The politicians steal out of greed. And the city steals from its citizens through its corrupt politics. It is a ladder that gets more dirty as one climbs. In the most talked-about shot in the film—it is the one in which Farrell’s Mulligan goes on a racially insensitive tirade inside his car while the camera pans across the hood, revealing a black driver and the gentrification of the city which Mulligan has a hand in—McQueen elegantly puts an exclamation mark on his theme of corruption.
Widows is something grander than a simple heist film. It is a film whose heist is its MacGuffin, as opposed to any other heist film, where the MacGuffin leads to the heist. In reversing this, McQueen lets his characters, not the set pieces, do the talking. All the same, he does not let the set pieces feel stagnant, either. They are shot with a precision that can match most other heist films. Add on the weighted performances of its ensemble cast, particularly from Davis and Debicki, and you have a film that does a lot of things right (loose plot threads be damned).
As always, thanks for reading!
Like CineFiles on Facebook for updates on new articles and reviews
Check out my page on Letterboxd
—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)