Widows: Steve McQueen’s Triumphant Venture Into Genre


L-R: Michelle Rodriguez, Viola Davis, and Elizabeth Debicki star in Twentieth Century Fox’s WIDOWS. Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

The Opening Gala for this year’s London Film Festival will be remembered as one of the best in recent memory. There were enormous expectations about the follow up to Steve McQueen’s Oscar winning ’12 Years A Slave,’ which the iconoclast British filmmaker have defied by venturing into genre with a slick heist movie adapting Lynda La Plante’s 1983 page-turner ‘Widows.’ La Plante’s bestseller was promptly made into a six-part ITV series the director was impressed by in his youth.

Another best selling writer, Gillian Flynn, was recruited to update the story to our times. Since Flynn’s successful adaptation of her own novel, ‘Gone Girl,’ earned an Oscar nomination, the American author’s body of work has been in great demand – this year we also saw ‘Sharp Objects’ made into an HBO miniseries. And she does not disappoint, with a compact screenplay that brilliantly transplants the many pulp charms, characters and situations of the original novel to contemporary Chicago, being faithful the storyline’s surprising twists and thrills.

On a year that has already spawned another high profile all-female heist thriller in the ‘Oceans 8’ sequel to lukewarm reviews for its plot contrivances; ‘Widows’ is unlikely to meet the same fate. Apart from its tight, fast-paced storyline which on its first few minutes before the credits alone, in a prodigiously edited sequence, has already given us the background of each of its main female characters, as well as the heist that put an end to the lives of their criminal husbands. The film’s main attraction is an extraordinary cast that wisely bring together fresh and up and coming stars (Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Daniel Kaluuya, Brian Tyree Henry) and more established ones such as Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Michelle Rodriguez, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall or a scene-stealing Jacki Weaver, all led by Viola Davis’ commanding performance as the wife of the gang’s mastermind, who is threatened by the corrupt African-American politician in contention for local government claiming back two million dollars her husband stole from him. Having been given the notebook of his operations, she would try and recruit the rest of the gangs’ widows, each one left with their own mess by their late partners, to rob the safe in the head offices of the rival political candidate. Flynn’s screenplay makes sure to give most characters, regardless of their screen time, enough space (and lines) for the whole cast to shine.

McQueen wisely echoes many of Today’s cultural concern. The female protagonists promptly gain the support of the audience. They are not victims, but strong-willed and resourceful women, accepting the coup as a way to escape the respective impossible situations their corrupt husbands are left them in. He also showcases the diverse multicultural backgrounds that form the social landscape of Today’s America, despite the efforts of the country’s current president. Therefore, the female gang is formed by African-American, Latin and Polish-descendent women. Perhaps is no coincidence than the fourth wife, the White Anglo-Saxon one, has an agenda of her own and does not join in.

L-R: Elizabeth Debicki (back to camera), Cynthia Erivo, Viola Davis (back to camera), and Michelle Rodriguez star in Twentieth Century Fox’s WIDOWS. Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

Their heist is set against the background of an impending local government election, whose two candidates –An Irishman whose wealthy family is engaged on land developing frauds and a thug-like African-American courting the support of religious leaders –reflect a moment of widespread institutional corruption that at times reminds the incisive political observations of The Wire.

‘Widows’ is also superbly crafted by some of the director’s usual collaborators. A careful selection of sets and locations, next to Sean Bobbitt’s masterful cinematography, help providing an instantly recognizable strong sense of place for each of the main character’s surroundings but, despite the action-crammed speedy pace, Bobbitt often takes his time to focus in small details within the sets that often give the audience a welcome breather to take everything in. Hans Zimmer’s synth-ridden score perfectly suit the chase scenes’ kinetic nature; while a carefully selected handful of tracks (ranging from the heavy metal of WASP to a Nina Simone soulful ballad and featuring a new track by Sade on its closing credits) also contribute to add sense of place to their scenes.

Steve McQueen adds another standout work to his remarkable filmography to date, as diverse in subject and genre as they come, although one can argue he is progressively descending into the mainstream, leaving behind his more daring and art-infused origins. But it is his drive not to pigeonhole himself and find completely different challenges on each of his movies what confirms it as one of the best directors in the world Today. ★★★★

Liam Neeson and Viola Davis in Twentieth Century Fox’s WIDOWS. Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

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