Social commentary and thrills struggle for balance in Steve McQueen’s take on the heist genre
British contemporary-artist-turned-feature-filmmaker Steve McQueen went all the way to the Oscar podium with 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, an austere, empathetic retelling of a grim episode in American race history, which collected him the trophy for Best Motion Picture. Validated by cinema’s most middlebrow accolade, what was a self-respecting, Turner Prize–winning art-school guy to do? At first glance, McQueen’s decision to take on the heist genre – an adaptation of a Lynda La Plante TV serial, at that – would seem like a sly subversion of the respectable career arc, an inclusive gesture toward the multiplex in the service of reaching the widest possible audience. Make no mistake, though: Widows intends to be every bit as important as McQueen’s previous work. But the film’s gallant play for genre thrills wed to wideranging social commentary proves trickier to execute than to imagine.
Working with co-writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, TV’s Sharp Objects), McQueen relocates La Plante’s big-haired BBC potboiler to present day Chicago – a city handily simmering with enough socioeconomic tension to stand in as a metaphor for modern America, where bureaucrats, gangsters, and religious leaders jockey for power, and women, as so often happens, wind up as collateral. In a blistering, audacious opening, McQueen slices between a tender kiss shared by a married couple, Veronica (Viola Davis) and Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), and a violently botched robbery, which leaves the latter, and the rest of his male crew, dead. Veronica, together with freshly minted widows Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki), suddenly find they’ve inherited their men’s criminal debt and the attention of malicious gangster Jamal Manning (Atlanta’s own Paper Boi, Brian Tyree Henry), who wants payback for the bungled job. Manning’s also running for alderman against local politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), a nepotistic, faux-working-class daddy’s boy whose racist pop Tom (Robert Duvall) is clinging to the city’s backroom power, and old-man movie swearing, for all he’s worth.
Widows has a lot on its mind, justly so, and McQueen never misses an opportunity to remind his audience of such. Over a first half that strays toward bloat, the film swings at religion, gender, politics, power, race and class, with sometimes ferocious results. An execution scene with Manning’s menacing brother and enforcer Jatemme, played by Daniel Kaluuya with the loping, terrifying coldness he teased in Black Panther, essays black-on-black violence while recalling both McQueen’s early video piece Bear (1993), and “All Day”, his confrontational 2015 clip for another embattled Chicagoan, Kanye West. A later seamless shot, camera mounted to the hood of a town car, traces Mulligan junior’s real-time journey from a minority neighbourhood in which he’d cynically campaigned, to his palatial mansion mere blocks away, all while he misogynistically interrogates his assistant on her sex life. It’s showy but effective, much like the moment in 12 Years a Slave where the camera panned down from Capitol Hill to Solomon Northup stripped of his dignity in a jail cell. Here’s McQueen at his best: using cinema to compress and then suspend time, with something to say and the power to accomplish it.
Alas, the film’s sense of its own importance also proves to be its undoing. Adding “weight” to a genre picture is admirable enough in ambition, but at a certain point in Widows it begins to feel like the essential parts aren’t working, its momentum smothered by ponderous embellishment. McQueen dwells on the dialogue passages that would be the dull connective tissue in a Fast and the Furious instalment – most of which are about as smart as heist movies as this is – but skimps on much of the actual payoff. Exposition drags on for thematic underlining, and narrative twists that should be satisfyingly ludicrous just come off as bad plotting.
And then the clangers start dropping. “Mom, you always said a gun is a girl’s best friend,” bleats a little kid in one scene, during which Debicki’s character shops for revenge hardware at a weapons meet. The sub-Michael Moore line drew a big laugh, of course, from the Australian screening audience, where a sense of smug superiority to Crazy Gun Totin’ America can always be relied upon. You want to believe that McQueen is above this, that Flynn might’ve aimed higher, but the suspicion only escalates. In a year where “elevated genre movie” rightly became a risible concept (in everything from John “I don’t watch horror movies” Krasinski’s A Quiet Place to Luca Guadagnino’s dreary Suspiria), one worries whether McQueen might have fallen into a similar trap of pretence. “If you want real change, you have to engage with the people you’re making films about,” McQueen told The Hollywood Reporter recently. “But I’m not lowering my political, intellectual engagement. I’m rising toward something, not lowering.” (This from a filmmaker whose ghastly Shame practically dripped with moralistic condescension.)
The tonal hiccups are frustrating, because when the film finally arrives at the widows’ heist, things come into conceptual focus. The central hook – that the women need to clean up the mess made by these men, and, by extension, the whole damn system – is a knockout, a theoretical corrective to this year’s botched Ocean’s 8 and one that probably didn’t need to strain for so much all-purpose social commentary. It’s also key to McQueen’s perspective here, as a kid who grew up misunderstood in West London: “These women have been judged by their appearance and the fact that they were deemed as not being capable,” he explained. “I was having the same sort of gaze put on me.” It’s why many of Widows’ best moments fondly regard its women, as McQueen builds a quiet storm (complete with a new Sade track, natch) simmering with repressed emotion, and goes in super tight on hair curls, lipstick, the weary crease under an eye. He intuits a world where Davis’s character might gaze out an apartment window to Nina Simone’s cover of “Wild Is the Wind”, and heist plans unfurl at a beauty salon where the women conspire to the groove of late-period Michael Jackson. (The film will, it must be said, generate enough Viola Davis GIFs to satisfy the world wide web for months to come.)
Such grace notes can’t always right Widows’ clunky rhythm, however, even if one grants McQueen the benefit of the doubt in deconstructing the genre – subverting the heist itself by de-emphasising it for a more “human” patchwork. At its best, the film moves with McQueen’s charged sense of composition and justice, yet just as much of it is indistinguishable from prestige television, ready made for social media harvesting and endless thinkpieces. In other words, he might want to clear some extra space on that Oscar mantle.
British contemporary-artist-turned-feature-filmmaker Steve McQueen went all the way to the Oscar podium with 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, an austere, empathetic retelling of a grim episode in American race history, which collected him the trophy for Best Motion Picture. Validated by cinema’s most middlebrow accolade, what was a self-respecting, Turner Prize–winning art-school guy to do? At first glance, McQueen’s decision to take on the heist genre – an adaptation of a Lynda La Plante TV serial, at that – would seem like a sly subversion of the respectable career arc, an inclusive gesture toward the multiplex in the service of reaching the widest possible audience. Make no mistake, though: Widows intends to be every bit as important as McQueen’s previous work. But the film’s gallant play for genre thrills wed to wideranging social commentary proves trickier to execute...