Steve Mcqueen’s latest film is a bold move from slow-burn dramas with a strolling pace into the department of fast paced blockbuster heist-movie. Regardless of this, Widows still really feels like a film of the British director. Despite embarking into the unknown waters of pacy cinema, McQueen still hasn’t lost his trademark style full of stunning imagery and disturbing violence.
Widows is a film of epic scale, layered with numerous characters and plots squeezed into a mere 128 minutes. It is a remake of a 1983 British TV mini-series of the same name which McQueen admitted being his passion project. His film is able to chart a detailed network showing links between politics and crime in Chicago. In this cross-section of the establishment the British director takes a closer look at the murky interrelations between the police, finance and even the church. McQueen’s Windy City was to me very reminiscent of The Wire’s Baltimore – a TV series largely praised for its realistic representation of racial and political tensions within a city.
The director of Shame was able to create (jointly with the Gone Girl screenwriter Gillian Flynn) an astonishing piece of concise storytelling with multiple subplots being constantly intertwined. To have a film with so many well-developed characters is to me one of the greatest screenplay achievements. Widows is up there with films like Magnolia or works of Robert Altman.
Looking at the stylistic aspect of the film it almost feels revolutionary of McQueen to make a film like Widows. As an avid fan of the director’s work I found it shocking how different stylistically Widows were from his earlier work. To see how it changed one could compare the final ultra-dynamic heist sequence from Widows with the notorious 17-minutes long interview scene from Hunger.
For a film that perhaps struggles a bit with pace during the exposition, Widows still manages to create a complex web of interrelations and resentments between the characters. At the heart of the plot stand three women (played by Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki) that have lost their husbands during a failed heist. If addiction was a central element of Shame and despair was the key emotion of 12 Years a Slave, Widows is about grief. Yet, the film focuses on how circumstances prohibit characters from any form of grieving. Only in rare flashback scenes (gorgeously shot by Sean Bobbitt) do we get a hint of Veronica’s (Davis) serene life she had to abandon.
Ironically, the eponymous widows, rather than being freed from the crime history of their toxic spouses, are dragged further into the world of brutality than they ever were before. It soon turns out that late Henry (Liam Neeson) left a debt of $2 million behind. The Manning brothers (Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya in a really menacing performance) are running in the elections against Tom Mulligan (Colin Farrell), and they need their money back. To break free from this situation widows need to pull off a heist together.
The burden the main characters inherit is so inescapable that they become imprisoned in their husbands’s past. Imprisonment is of course McQueen’s favourite theme, but here he treats it in a more abstract way. The Heist is not that of The Oceans franchise. In Widows crime is not a medium to achieve thrills, but an offspring of systemic inequalities. Hence for Veronica and her accomplices to steal is to hopefully escape from the dark and frantic world they were suddenly cast into.
Paradoxically, imprisonment of widows catalyses their struggle for emancipation. McQueen plays here with the most basic of power relationships that underpinned decades of Hollywood cinema. In Widows females move from being passive objects of gaze, domestic abuse or financial dependence on their husbands, and, using Veronica’s words, “show they have some balls too”.
Image source: IMDB