By Joe Hammerschmidt
In the short span of 25 years, British director Steve McQueen has been best regarded for raw, dirt-level gritty, unapologetic character-driven stories that will keep a viewer at the edge of their seats until the very last frame. That does lead me to wonder why he’s only made four features in that time. To imagine there was any possible way to surpass the brevity, the mere structure of humanity being violated after his Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave seemed an impossible feat. Five years later, he leans to surpass what he’d past built, using a dedicated, female-led ensemble cast to accomplish the lofty goal. Widows carries the level of high caliber, high concept, high overhead that one could only see from McQueen. He is easily the kind of director that throws everything, plus the kitchen sink at an audience to see what sticks; it was rather expected I couldn’t keep track of everything at first, equaling to a small loss in crucial connectivity. But it’s very small, and only encourages multiple viewings to capture every angle of every frame. It’s the cinematic equivalent of staring into a Picasso painting; you don’t understand the true meaning at first glance, but what you do see on the surface is quite shocking, often pulse-pounding, and never dull. Certainly striking, for lack of a better word.
McQueen’s eyes, combined with the decadent words of Gone Girl scribe Gillian Flynn, paint one enthralling picture, the diverse realm of Chicago the canvas on which they operate. Widows is certainly a tale for the city, but filled with people simply aspiring to do better for themselves, and certainly for those they lost. Whether it’s a life lost or a treasured friendship bond lost, scores and accounts need to be settled up. And it starts with stalwart Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis), teacher’s union delegate and wife to a legendary thief, the deceased Harry (Liam Neeson). In the wake of he and his crew murdered after a job gone down the tubes, one of their close nemeses, the impatient Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) is out for a $2 million windfall to even up outstanding debts, and bankroll his campaign for South Side alderman, versus the old-school thinking Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell). With the clock ticking, and with her late husband’s detailed blueprints in hand, she recruits her fellow widows, small business owner Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), beautician Belle (Cynthia Erivo), and Jill-of-all-trades Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) to finish what their husbands had started, taking charge and taking names.
So many characters with much at stake, one would think this film could’ve worked better with more breathing room. McQueen and Flynn did technically inspire this film from an obscure 80s British primetime soap, and that same lineage of intersecting stories stacked on top of one another is echoed greatly, given a more intense breath of life. In return, the film’s eclectic ensemble cast only seeks to complement their story framework, and the backdrop they thrive in. There’s no best or worst performance here, only a blaze of consistent acting delivery. If there must be one singular lead that champions among the others, and/or may most likely achieve most of the award season love, it’d have to go to Miss Davis. Den mother, grieving mother, educational advocate, gun-carrier, a leader, and a friend to only the right people, an enemy to those who personally wronged her. She is all of those elements and much more, at every turn fearless. Just fearless, bold, and determined.
The rest of the cast follows her unique example; Debicki (the tactile approach for riskiness), Erivo (wide-open vision to blaze the fastest path), Rodriguez (the smell of attracting a wrongful mark and), and at times even Neeson (that initial taste for danger) all a foregone completion of all five senses in Davis’s (her ears hearing and answering the call for justice) crusade. For the more villainous side, it’s just as fruitful. Henry’s lead mobster character, accompanied by aggressive little bro Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), are an unstoppable one-two punch meaning both business and personality in a rather special package; I’d be amiss if I didn’t say how game I’d be for a likely spinoff story involving those two. Irish-born Farrell has once more proven his soft spot for “crooked public servants” (Fantastic Beasts being the first indicator), and the relationship Jack holds readily with father, hard-nosed power broker Tom (Robert Duvall, still in top form at age 87) holds no equal. Under the right circumstances, they too have earned their own side story, outcomes withholding.
On technical terms, McQueen reunites much of the same crew he collaborated with on Slave, with the results serving as a salute to the Chicagoan underworld, the parts not already considerably famous enough in films prior. Composer Hans Zimmer, whose Oscar-worthy score only builds in momentum from the get-go, starting with mere silence before increasing in instrumentation like it were the most natural symphonic resonance on the planet. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who easily had created my favorite single shot of any film this year, a two-minute long tracking shot following Jack’s limo from the imbalanced, poverty-influenced South Side he so aspires to improve, back to his fenced middle-century home in the more affluent suburbs, balanced out by a private chat between Jack and his frustrated assistant. My description of said scene can’t do it justice, it must be seen, alongside the many clear night scenes Bobbitt frames all too poignantly. Editor Joe Walker, cutting almost to the heartbeat of each widow thief’s anxiety; and perhaps, PD Adam Stockhausen’s Midwestern upbringing only bringing the clash of design styles more congruent, and a little closer to home.
Part of me wishes I could go on and on regarding McQueen’s masterpiece that can speak not just to how to run a city, how to fulfill transactions run by organized crime, and most importantly how to evolve as a family after a loved one is taken away so wrongly. But another part of me struggles to find the words, encouraging those of you reading this review to bravely take on Widows with both eyes open and to be prepared to experience what will feel like a million different ideas coming at you all at once, but all running for the same bottom line goals. It will hit straight for the pulse of one’s heart, and feed the brain with a bittersweet dose of reality, no matter where in the country one is watching from. It will mean the same thing, that we all aim for much better than what we are left with. And when we grieve, we must take the responsible decision to arise and surpass at the next great occasion. The four leading women McQueen had trusted his passionate adaptation of an understated favorite among TV fans in the UK, they certainly have more than surpassed. For these reasons, understandably different from the last film considered a shoo-in, I’m looking at a strong contender for one of the year’s best films. It has all the makings of an effortless darling that dares to shake up the heist thriller for the next decade and beyond, and give the ladies another great chance to, well, I suppose, save the day. (A-)
Widows opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual content/nudity; 129 minutes.