There’s a scene early in “Widows” – Steve McQueen’s latest and most unorthodoxly mainstream movie – in which Robert Duvall’s aging, racist local statesman tells his son and heir that his new $50,000 painting comes across as mere wallpaper.
Colin Farrell’s Jack Mulligan responds with a nondescript rebuke, as if on a deeper level he doesn’t fully disagree: “It’s art.”
The brief exchange can garner a universal chuckle for those watching in a moviehouse, but one gets the sense that isn’t McQueen’s intention. How we react to the scene, after all, is also a product of our experiences.
Would $50,000 turn our lives around? Is it pocket change? Do we ever dream of being at a place where that sum of money could be spent on a single, needless piece of wall decor? Could we dream of it?
Movies don’t typically inspire these kinds of questions when they also feature car chases and explosions. But “Widows” knows the dramatic can cohabitate with the thoughtful; the complex can thrive alongside the thrilling. With his story of disenfranchised women atoning for the sins of their husbands, McQueen doesn’t just have a movie leaps and bounds more likely to be absorbed the masses than any of his previous work, including Best Picture winner “12 Years A Slave.” He’s also got a movie with many more things to say, more buttons to push, more conversations to spark than the obvious recent film to offer up for comparison—“Ocean’s Eight.”
Elevator pitches aside, the two couldn’t be more different.
McQueen doesn’t enter into this brave new world – namely, a world of villainy manifested in bullets and gripping tension – without a chip on his shoulder. Anyone who never imagined they would hear the director’s name and “heist movie” in the same sentence should be assured that the auteur is still up to his typically subversive ways.
With “Widows,” however, he provides an excellent and exceedingly rare example of how high-stakes drama married with deeply layered storytelling is a union that should be undertaken more often.
At the film’s start are vignettes of relationships, ones that reside in their own specific universes but which collide when the criminal men in each are killed in a heist gone wrong. The police bear down, bullets rain, and a caper ends as we catch glimpses of their final moments hours before.
That prologue, despite its simplicity, is cut and edited together in such a way that proves McQueen has just as many tricks up his sleeves for stringing together frenetically paced sequences as he does the meticulously slow and deliberately disturbing ones from “Hunger” and “12 Years A Slave.”
Veronica – an excellent, hard-nosed Viola Davis dong damn good work at upending genre conventions – is thrust into a situation where she must recoup the money her husband helped steal. The money, millions of dollars of it, was incinerated in the heist, as are Veronica’s plans in trying to piece together a normal life following her husband’s death.
So she assembles a crew. Not of toughened, experienced burglars who deliberate over getaway plans in the same manner you and I might employ in discussing our afternoons; but one made up of the other women who now, in their respective ways, must find ways to cope after their husbands’ deaths in the robbery.
The genius of McQueen lies in his never shoving down our throats that these would-be small business owners, college students and babysitters are planning something society would never expect them to plan; “They know we don’t have the balls to pull this off,” Davis sneers in one scene, her desire to be doing something else as apparent as her understanding she has no other choice.
This isn’t Danny Ocean and company toying and thinking ahead two, five, 10 heists down the road. There’s a mutual understanding between Davis’s Veronica, Michelle Rodriguez’s Linda and Elizabeth Debicki’s Alice that this isn’t the start to a life of crime; it’s rising to the occasion, and to a place previously occupied by men.
I’m sure the ironic timing of “Widow’s” release – just weeks after women running for public office had a milestone Election Day – isn’t lost on the very socially aware McQueen.
The affair unfolds against the backdrop of contemporary Chicago – more films about the Windy City as well, Hollywood, please – and amid the unscrupulous election for alderman of a particularly poverty-ridden ward.
The election’s participants: Farrell’s Mulligan, the latest in a hierarchy of perhaps false white saviorism to the precinct, and Brian Tyree Henry’s Jamal Manning, his African American opponent who actually embodies the struggles the 18th ward faces.
The election’s undercurrents: Campaigning on the merits of legacy against the only way to achieve an ounce of respect. Of all the film’s various subplots, developments and even the legitimately shocking twists – all of them deftly handled, in ways that never makes “Widows” feel like its outstaying its welcome – this is the most intricate and interesting.
There are no clear antagonists, no clear figures to root for and the police force of a violent city will dissolve out of expendability before ethical salvation is to be found.
As intellectual as “Widows” is when stacked up against other films in its cadre, there’s no love lost for pure entertainment. This is a genuine popcorn flick as much as it is a primer on ongoing societal relations, with a handful of individual scenes that stand out from the 2018 pack late in the year. And much like Veronica’s crew, every actor in this ensemble more than pulls their weight, though Cynthia Erivo is particularly enticing in her too-limited screen time. Daniel Kaluuya, as well, makes a legitimate case for the best performance in a film stocked to the brim with them.
McQueen and Gillian Flynn’s script effortlessly maneuvers through so many lanes, themes and commentaries on race, relationships, gender roles and political milieu that make up “Widows,” that the screenplay almost feels like the city of Chicago imprinted in ink—a matrix with parts as ugly as they are authentic. Flynn, meanwhile, continues a remarkable second career in writing for the screen as she begins to veer away from merely adapting her own novels.
Here, the dark gravity pulling everybody down to their baser, animalistic, instinctual selves is a theme that could be found in any grim Flynn tale. This Chicago is labyrinthine in its circles of power and vanity, but it’s never caustic. Only dreadfully sincere, as the movie’s ski-masked double entendres hop from the title card into a getaway van, never going below 85 as they speed towards our collective consciousness, barreling right through not as martyrs of their message, but as long-awaited deliverers. We’d be so wise as to listen.
One extended tracking shot in particular early in the film provides one of many memorable samples of the union of McQueen’s and Flynn’s talents; a scene pulling back the cover of inner-city bureaucracy that shocks yet also confirms everything we know to be true about how such affairs unfold in our real world behind the curtains of political rallies and the dark-tinted windows of Chryslers leaving them.
In other words, it’s pure McQueen, tried and true. Whether the world of genre cinema is something he’s only interested in tasting or devouring more of in the future – either way, we win – his blue-collar approach to exposing the world’s nasty extremities is not only must-see material, but must-absorb, must-reflect, must-be-discussed.
His messages, in other words, are in keeping with his cinematic ideologies, but “Widows” seems to be the British filmmaker’s way of crossing more oceans to the mainstream audience, coming right up to our porches as it so say, “Maybe now, they’ll listen.” It wouldn’t do to say this world – that of the film and our own; they feel synonymous – isn’t reduced to black and white. The reality is: even its grays contain shades in multitudes.
You see it in Jamal’s questionable motives. In the terrifying contrasts between the Mulligans’ blind philosophies and the experiences of Veronica that echo our own realities. In how Alice contends with the assumption by those around her that everything must come easy by comparison.
Nothing about this film feels shortsighted. McQueen is setting its sights much farther than any heist movie has in years, arriving at rarely explored territory, planting his flag—and undoubtedly readying to march on.
“Widows” is rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual content/nudity
Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Liam Neeson
Directed by Steve McQueen