With HUNGER, SHAME and 12 YEARS A SLAVE, Steve McQueen has proven himself as a director with such a specific vision, you can decipher it's one of his films just by watching a few moments. He's fond of long takes and negative space within a frame, always choosing carefully what he wants to show the audience and what he doesn't. With smaller art films, his aesthetic feels unique and welcome, but I worried when word got out that his next film would tackle a specific genre...the heist film. I breathed a sigh of relief when WIDOWS, which he also co-wrote with Gillian Flynn (GONE GIRL), is a sprawling, excitingly tense thriller and one of the year's best films.
Although it stars Viola Davis, every single principal cast members has a chance to shine in this twisty tale of a group of widows drawn into completing a robbery left unfinished when their criminal husbands meet an unfortunate end. McQueen intercuts this powerful opening sequence with comparatively serene flashbacks which introduce our main characters and their soon-to-die spouses. The juxtaposition sets the tone for the rest of the film, one meant to catch the viewer off guard.
Davis plays Veronica, whose husband Harry (Liam Neeson) leads his gang to their doom. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) make up the other widows and the plot kicks into gear when a politican/gangster named Jamal Manning (a fantastically hypnotic Brian Tyree Henry) gives Veronica thirty days to come up with $2 million to replace the money her husband stole from him. Jamal's henchman, Jatemme (a memorably frightening Daniel Kaluuya), will stop at nothing to help his brother achieve this goal, and the violence that ensues feels viscerally traumatizing. Complicating matters further, Jamal has a political rival, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), a rich and soulless power broker who also factors heavily in the case of the stolen money. Their campaigns for Alderman frame the macro story, giving us a corrupt society in which to experience the micro story of the heist.
Unlike the OCEANS 11 franchise, where the mechanics of the theft take center stage, McQueen focuses on the characters, making this a particularly rich, layered entry into the genre. Davis gives a commanding performance, although it's intensely humorless, but appropriate considering the circumstances. She drives the action, but remains the strong, steady heroine while generously allowing her co-stars to walk away with the film. It's not that she's bad. She's great, especially in her vulnerable moments, including an unexpected slapping scene or one in which some unexpected information punctures her mask of control.
Rodriguez, however, knocked me out. Usually the strong, silent type, she has a scene of intense vulnerability, showing us a new side to her. Debicki, so hauntingly strange in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2, knocks her role out of the park as an abused woman who discovers her independence. Robert Duvall, at 86, stunned me as Farrell's racist, hideous monster of a father, Jacki Weaver, as usual, excels as Debicki's mother from hell and Lukas Haas impressed as an assured man who hires Debicki for sexual companionship during her more desperate times. Special mention also goes to Cynthia Erivo as an extremely athletic driver for the women who refuses to take any stuff from Davis. She's a Broadway star who has blasted onto the film scene this year, and I'm excited to see what she does next.
McQueen relies on a lot of fractured imagery in the film, beautifully shot by his longtime cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, but the centerpiece of this film is a long take from outside a limo as Farrell and his aide drive from a poor section of town to a wealthy one. Never once cutting to his actors, we hear their scheming while reflecting on the economic disparity which acts as an overall theme of the film. It's scenes like this which separate McQueen from lesser filmmakers who would have kept the camera on the actors' faces. The film also has memorable scenes involving a very cute doggy, terror on a basketball court and in a bowling alley, and a gorgeous moment of release in the end. Not to spoil anything, but the last shot had a similar emotional impact on me that William Hurt's final close-up did in THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST.
WIDOWS has a lot of story, but it's easy to follow and, for me, feels like an epically satisfying meal. Although nothing new when it comes to female empowerment stories, the beauty is in the telling of it. McQueen proves that it's possible to be on the edge of your seat AND care about the people you're watching.
PS- I love Viola Davis and will continue to support her career by paying to see every one of her films in theaters but this was seriously a flop. I almost walked out.