Steve McQueen’s latest film does not tackle hot button issues like slavery, sex addiction or political prisoners. In Widows he uses the skill and art to give grown-up moviegoers a rousing good time.
Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson)’s last heist goes south leaving his widow Veronica (Viola Davis) holding the bag. Veronica gathers the other widows, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) to pull off a heist to free them of their husbands’ debts.
Widows reveals all the pieces of the heist deliberately, so it is rewarding when they all come together. It’s as much about redistricting Chicago’s 18th ward and the political Mulligan and Manning families. Even Linda’s babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo) is a full character.
The subtlety with which McQueen and cowriter Gillian Flynn lay the groundwork makes it a tad disappointing that they leave a few loose ends, which could have been quickly addressed before the credits. But by the time you’re asking any minor questions they’ve taken you on a great ride.
Veronica gives Linda and Alice tasks and just expects them to figure it out. This forces them to be resourceful, as opposed to the usual heist planning scenes where experts make preparations. It’s more empowering when they get it right.
McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt use the cinematography that made Shame and 12 Years a Slave so harrowing to make exposition more artful. In one scene, alderman candidate Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) leaves one event and we ride on the hood of his car all the way to his next stop, while he has a conversation inside.
When Jatemme Manning (Daniel Kaluuya) threatens some underlings, the camera spins around while he makes the boys rap. It only stops when Jatemme turns violent.
We’ve seen lots of movies where tough henchmen threaten and interrogate people connected to the heroes. Jatemme finds new ways to intimidate and torture people. He’s scary because it’s all business to him and he means business.
The action is more visceral in this style. Harry’s heist is filmed mostly from the point of view of the van with what looks like real car stunts happening in real time. So you see, you can find new ways to film coherent action without shaking the camera all over.
Even the basic staging of scenes is elevated in Widows. Really, any generic movie should still deliver competent staging to convey the basic formula. Years of thoughtless staging has made me appreciate a director really just doing his job and making the images work.
This is why it’s good to let “serious” directors do “fun” movies too. Really there should be no delineation between “important” movies and “popcorn” movies, but there is, so take Widows as an example of how genre film benefits from letting artists play in the sandbox.
Widows played at AFI Fest this week and is now playing in theaters.