'Widows' is Steve McQueen's first film since '12 Years a Slave,' five years ago, and it is his first venture into genre fiction, with a heist thriller that is as thrilling as it is unexpected. People who want a good story, vividly told, will be glued to their seats for its entire intricately plotted 130 minutes, confident that none of the unanticipated twists and turns in this film are just for shock value or dramatic effect. McQueen has other aims and treats in store.
Widows is based on Lynda La Plant's two 1980s BBC television crime drama seasons about the aftermath of a botched armed robbery. La Plant, who wrote the BBC TV series 'Prime Suspect,' starring Helen Mirren, is adept at depicting complex multi-dimensional female characters. McQueen and 'Gone Girl' author Gillian Flynn transplant her story from London to Chicago's troubled southside, so as to tell a thoroughly modern tale of class, race, sex and religion, where 'criminals are like cops' and fired-up black preachers fuel the flames of division. Some of the acid humour of the original British version is retained, much of it carried by Colin Farrell, smartly cast as crooked politico Jack Mulligan, trying to hold onto the alderman seat that has been in his family for 60 years.
Jack woos local constituents with a programme of support for small businesses bearing the catchy title, 'Minority Women Own Work.' 'Can I have a MWOW?' he smarmily rallies the audience in front of a line-up of newly empowered, totally unconvinced, female entrepreneurs. In one brilliant face-to-face scene, reminiscent of 'Hunger', he disowns his ghastly father (played by Robert Duvall) because his rancid racism has become a political liability even for him, in the newly predominantly African-American ward, due to boundary changes, where Jack is incumbent alderman.
The surface plot of 'Widows' is revealed in the opening sequence. A screeching car chase is seen from the vantage point of a getaway van with its back doors flapping open in scenes that are intercut with shots of mobster Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) and his wife Veronica (Viola Davis) kissing in bed. A bomb explodes, flinging an armoured van towards the camera and sending glinting fragments, twisting and turning, towards us – a great metaphor for the remaining two hours of dramatic fragments that will be flung our way.
When Harry is killed in the foiled heist, his widow must face the consequences. According to local criminal (and aspirant local politician) Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), $2m belonging to him burned in the car explosion along with Harry. Veronica has to pay it back within a month or else. Two other widows are left shell-shocked and financially shafted: Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), a mother of three whose dress shop has been repossessed because of her husband's gambling; and downtrodden Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), mourning a wife-beater husband, while being egged on by her awful mother to prostitute herself. Debicki astonishes by being very funny, particularly in a scene where she poses as a mail-order bride. The three eventually join forces to pay off Jamal by following a blueprint plan for a heist that Harry has mysteriously left Veronica in a safety deposit box. They later enlist hairdresser Belle (Cynthia Erivo) as their getaway driver.
A subplot about a pending mayoral election pits Jamal Manning (who wants to be the ward's first African-American alderman) against Jack Mulligan. Jamal's brother and henchman, Jatemme, played by Daniel Kaluuya ('Get Out'), is brilliantly cast as a cold, reptilian killer/enforcer in a sharp suit. In one unforgettable scene in a gym, a 360 degrees rotating camera captures a terrified young man as he raps, ordered to do so by Jatemme, who has a score to settle. The audience is lulled into thinking it's going to be all right, after all, as Jatemme starts nodding to the beat. But of course it's not all right.
We worry about and care
for the women, particularly Veronica, played magnificently by Davis, whose dignified presence dominates the film. Her character is much-maligned – more so than anyone – a fact revealed in a shocking tip-off provided by the fluffy white dog she caresses like a child for most of the film. Stern and driven (she smiles only once) Veronica is the lynchpin around which the rest of the action turns. She is doubly bereaved, we realise, as images of lovemaking with her husband and flashbacks to the tragic loss of their son recur throughout the film. In one powerful scene, she pauses before a closed door, doing and saying nothing, yet managing to convey renewed grief and hardened resolve as she realises the terrible wrong she has been done. Being totally silent, speaking volumes, it is a dazzling, chilling moment.
In their basic tale of bereaved women taking the law into their own hands, McQueen and his collaborators keep coming up with fresh ways of laying bare the canker at the heart of routine everyday corruption in America. Veronica is not just shafted by crooks and bad luck. She lives in a society that doesn't give a damn, where it's every man or woman for himself or herself. The way McQueen stages his film tells us this.
Themes of police corruption, domestic violence, and race-based poverty are there in the texture of every frame – in the pacing and precision of editor Joe Walker cuts, in the imaginative visual storytelling of the director and cinematographer, and in Hans Zimmer's hypnotic, pulsating score. We hardly notice the music – just a few beats to start with, gradually increasing in pace and volume as the heist gets going, then building to a pitch, matched by Walker's quick-fire editing, as the women's well-rehearsed heist moves to its excruciating knuckle-biting conclusion.
Wide framing emphasises the social distance between characters; faces are frequently seen in mirrors and through glass, as when the two rival politicians meet, and we watch them, gauzily obscured, through a window. The fractured nature of this world is captured by Sean Bobbit's camera, swooping down from classy apartments on high to rubbish-strewn streets below.
In one amazing extended take, a conversation taking place inside a moving car (about violence) between Manning and his assistant/wife, is shot in real time entirely from outside the car. The camera follows smoothly alongside its blacked out windows, never focusing on the passengers, their conversation heard only in voiceover. The effect is uncanny. What we do see is a minor character, the driver, as we experience the short distance separating the slums of the projects from the gentrified district just up the street. It is a brilliant way to point up the irony of the topic of conversation, as we note houses and streets changing before our eyes, in the space of minutes, from small and rundown to big and set well apart.
Such audacious filmmaking is to be expected from Turner prize-winner McQueen. Given his previous punishing preoccupations such as starvation ('Hunger', 2008), sex addiction ('Shame', 2011) and enslavement ('12 Years a Slave,' 2013) we just could not have anticipated such an utterly entertaining blockbuster as 'Widows' from him. What a treat.