Steve McQueen’s fourth feature film marks the British filmmaker’s first foray into genre filmmaking fresh off his Best Picture win for 12 Years a Slave, and arguably a case for what may also be his best film yet. Based on the ITV miniseries of the same name created by Lynda La Plante, what McQueen and Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn have created is not just any other thriller but a very special one indeed – one where it feels every position carries a sense of power over one another. It’s a thriller that carries all the best elements of the genre, but also something so much more thoughtful in its presentation it feels outright irresistible. Yet this is only a fraction of where Widows’s greatness comes by, if more needed to be said about why Steve McQueen is one of this generation’s best working filmmakers. But knowing that a filmmaker like Steve McQueen and a writer like Gillian Flynn can join forces in creating what also happens to be one of the most emotionally visceral thriller films to be released in recent memory.
The film opens on a most fitting note, where we are already shown a heist taking place – thus resulting in a police chase. This group of robbers is led by none other than Henry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), but we also see him together with his loving wife Veronica (Viola Davis). We cut back to the daily lives of the other robbers interacting with their wives; for we have the harried Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), and the soft-spoken Alice (Elizabeth Debicki). In a flash, all of that quietness goes away brutally – when all the robbers are killed in an explosion that resulted from a police shootout, leaving a masive debt on the widows’ ends. Of course, we already know that this is what brings together these women that have nothing in common to complete one last job in their late husbands’ names but perhaps the most unexpected joy to come out from Widows arises from its foundation upon social consciousness that seems so rare in this day and age.
One who saw as much as the first teaser would already be taking note of the narration that loudly reads out, “What has happened in the world, where normal now passes as excellence?” Walking into Widows, that stuck in my mind especially because of the way in which it seems so conscious of the way America moves forward. Being McQueen’s third film in a row to be set in the United States, it also seems to be the one that best captures what society truly is like at its core – where people already see progressive values as a step forward on behalf of many others. It’s an America in which racism, misogyny, and capitalism run rampant and corrupt one’s own morality, with the story being told against a background of a heist film led by women (contrasting how many of the more mainstream titles have all been led by males), it only feels so much more real. Our four lead characters have been damaged in some sense by the fact that the ones they loved most have been killed during an attempted robbery, but McQueen explores where the fuel starts to set off the fire.
Thrilling as Widows can be from the first frame to last, which in part is thanks to Gillian Flynn co-writing the screenplay, but the most outstanding aspects of Widows all are made even clearer thanks to how McQueen sets up a perfect atmosphere – one that feels drenched in doom, because of the way the world moves around these widows. Every set piece feels perfect into place, with the transplantation of a setting in 1980’s Liverpool to modern day Chicago, but McQueen breathes life into the film’s setting so you already know you’re made to feel as if this world could be one you recognize so distinctly. Together with Steve McQueen’s traditional long takes as one would remember from his previous films, it also makes the climate all the more unflinching as it is. You already find yourself getting down to the bones of where corruption in American politics starts off, but the more we see of this world the more we only come to realize that all of this still remains prevalent today, and probably is set to stay if society chooses to remain indifferent to what goes on in the world around themselves. McQueen and Flynn take no prisoners, introducing a perfect layer on the surface only to delve deeper as the film progresses and show us more beyond what we perceive. As promised from McQueen an intensely layered character study is at play, and as promised from Flynn an emotionally grappling and twisty thriller is what we get. But how the two of them work together, it only ever can really be something of a miracle.
In talking more about what this film sets out for, you also have a perfect template for what could easily have been told as any other heist story – yet McQueen makes use of the film’s political aims in order to create something more intimidating. It’s already clear enough from the moment in which Brian Tyree Henry’s character is introduced, but a standout if any were to be noted in particular would be the role of Daniel Kaluuya, arguably the most cruel character ever to grace the screen in the year by far. Kaluuya’s presence, coming quickly after his breakthrough in Jordan Peele’s Get Out, evokes something so grim just from the way in which he interacts with everyone else, but typical of Steve McQueen, even the minor roles still offer a sense of significance. And as one would recognize from the work of Gillian Flynn, it’s hard not to admire the solidarity that she ensures for female characters – especially the titular widows. All four leads are wonderful, and without any of their efforts, I can’t say I would ever have expected to find something so much more emotional out of such characters on the screen (Michelle Rodriguez’s turn in particular is beyond a pleasant surprise, and I already have hopes to see Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo turning bigger soon).
What still leaves me in awe is how something like Widows could ever have been made to be nearly as perfect as it is, both as a fun heist film and as a commentary about the current state of affairs in American politics. But at the center of everything, the power that Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn give to women in Widows creates something even more admirable deep down. And the fact that this is only McQueen’s fourth film is something that amazes me all the more, because it just showcases the power that genre filmmaking can carry, especially in how it reflects the grim reality of its environment. Yet I could only count on a filmmaker like Steve McQueen to create something so socially conscious to have been made right from the genre, and a screenwriter like Gillian Flynn to create such wonderfully realized female leads in order to carry out a thrilling experience. But I can’t only call Widows thrilling at that, because it’s also an eye-opener in perhaps the most unexpected ways, something that must be seen to be believed. And if I were to tell the truth, movies like this are why I love going to the cinema on a regular basis. A film like Widows carries that very power to show that film is more than mere escape, it can reflect the reality of one through its own distinct lens, but there comes another power because of whose voices are being carried to the spotlight. And having a chance to listen is what makes Widows feel as great as it is, because Widows represents everything I love about what cinema can evoke. Beyond all that, it also remains fun all throughout and I cannot wait to see this film again.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via 20th Century Fox.
Directed by Steve McQueen
Screenplay by Steve McQueen, Gillian Flynn, from the TV series by Lynda La Plante
Produced by Steve McQueen, Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Arnon Milchan
Starring Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Garret Dillahunt
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 128 minutes
[…] Widows – The best film of the festival by far. Steve McQueen’s first genre film stretches the conventions and retains his grimy filmmaking style in order to create one of the decade’s most socially relevant films, but I don’t even know where to begin when I want to sing my praises. I just want to talk about this with more people so quickly and I can let out more spoiler-y raves with people who’ve also seen it. You can read my full review here. […]
[…] his effusive review from TIFF and his unapologetic stanning of Elizabeth Debicki, this will likely be one of the few films my […]
[…] Speaking of more films with great female-led ensemble casts, this also brings me to Steve McQueen’s Widows – which may also be last year’s best genre effort. Aside from being the best heist film to come out in a long while (not as if there was truly much competition between this and Michael Mann’s Heat), there’s a whole lot to love about what McQueen presents here. It’s without doubt far more accessible than any of his previous films, yet it still carries the same jolt that has always kept his films every bit as worthwhile. As expected from a script co-written with Gillian Flynn, it’s a thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat – yet not one without its own dash of political commentary as expected from Steve McQueen. From first frame to last, Widows already brings you into a world moving by at a quick pace, but as we cut hard from the action and intimate moments of husband and wife coming together, I knew that this was only going to be something special. And it truly lived up. Everyone, everything, is all too perfect in this movie. Read my review here. […]