There’s already talk in the Oscars realm, with months to go, that perhaps only three films can win Best Picture. One of those not being Widows, Steve McQueen’s enthralling latest film. I’m not sure how many films can actually go on and take the top prize, nor am I here to talk about them. But I do know without much hesitation, Widows can win. It is so hefty in entertainment, vigor, allure, the screen damn near explodes. McQueen is a cynical, anxious story-teller, but his stylish, moving talent hovers across every frame.
Adapted from the 1983 British television serial from Lynda La Plante, McQueen acquired Gone Girl scribe, Gillian Flynn, to co-write the screenplay – she being the prime suspect for such a case, you might say. This time, we transfer the drama to Chicago’s South Side, Widows is far more than a smart spotlight on race and gender. One of the most emotive heist movies ever made, Widows plows effortlessly through a social commentary of wealth, power and class; generational discontent and conflict; turning blind-eyes to the criminal profession, and living with the consequences.
In the misty proclamation of many awards season regulars, making the Ensemble shortlist when it comes to the Screen Actors Guild announcement, is a hefty Best Picture boost. And Widows has a kinetic cast of players. Ought to be a sure thing.
There’s the primary widows of the title, Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki. Their respective partners-literally-in-crime, including Liam Neeson and Jon Bernthal. Multi-tasking Cynthia Erivo, politician son-and-father, Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall, and the big crooks, in calculating Brian Tyree Henry and sinister brother Daniel Kaluuya. Did I mention a fluffy white Westie named Olivia?
The array of names and faces is mouth-watering. And in its intricate, invigorating execution, the ensemble do nothing less than impressively accomplished with every inch they make. Not only should this garner the Academy’s attention, but leave every glance, bout of dialogue, reaction, lingering on their minds to compel the voters as they mark their ballots.
It is certainly not faint praise to acclaim Widows as a film that is exquisitely crafted throughout. From the first shot of a middle-aged couple making out like teenagers, and a startling jump edit into a getaway about to go tits up. Juxtaposing a seemingly loving relationship with the fatal, boombastic events that opens the door for one such a widow to find some gutsy renegade potential.
When a veteran thief, who apparently doesn’t make mistakes, perishes with his small crew of men amidst police pursuit, the lives of the women left behind step on a trapdoor they didn’t even know was there. A life of luxury, or domestic assault, fade into the future to where an unknown chapter awaits them – but a contrasting cluster of pages that they will choose to write themselves.
Steve McQueen’s film is a bravura portrayal of greedy ambition, personal enlightenment, adrenaline-fueled morality. The filmmaker has shown us prior (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave), that he has a knack and a flair for the human condition when it freely, but not without purpose, causes and receives prolonged pain. Characters whose circumstances give off a heavy scent of empathy and discomfort to its audience – that you almost feel it yourself. Described as a genre film (for McQueen), Widows is mercifully no different.
Even with McQueen’s recent win for Best Picture (but not Best Director, remember), it is the unstoppable actress, Viola Davis, who perhaps leads the line as we crunch our way through the every expanding awards season. Her Veronica is a steely, stoic woman, a magnificent presence as she collides head-on with the hazardous mess her husband, Harry, left behind. Veronica’s determination goes beyond a matter of life and death, or the women that are trampled on by powerful men – “This is not your world” is one threat that comes her way. So she makes it her world. And likely a Best Actress nomination.
Perhaps taking more convincing of the danger ahead, the likes of Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), a mother whose husband pretty much gambled away their entire finances, and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), a physical punching bag for her husband, and a mental one for her crude mother, have to dig a little deeper for their balls. But they sure do have them. Belle (Cynthia Erivo), who literally sprints from beauty salon, to babysitting gigs, to minimal time with her own kid, already has the fire in her belly when she joins the crew.
True, the majority of the male ensemble in the picture are walking on the villainous side, but this is hardly a film about man-hating feminists. There’s definite charisma and menace in varying proportions with political candidate / crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) and his bother / henchman Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya). Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) hides dastardly deeds through his smarmy charm. His father, Tom (Robert Duvall), along with generations of the Mulligan name, are about to be thrown to the curb, but difficult to sympathize with their dated social views in a mostly black, financially deprived area.
Veronica doesn’t so much recruit the other woman, rather shows them the brutal, risky truth in liberation. This is their time, in the midst of troubling circumstances and bereavement, they will define themselves by their poor treatment and charge forward on their own terms.
It is fair to say that Widows, every now and again, requires the audience to buy into the scenarios and the character choices, but those that see this as holes in the story are sadly misunderstood. I mean, Veronica’s choice to utilize the crime journal left behind by Harry, is a cunning, instantaneous one. It’s an easy buy-in, to ponder on the narrative implications of selling the book, instead, is hardly a prosperous conundrum.
Widows is the stuff of great crime drama. No matter how much McQueen and co. punish us, fool us, twist us one way then the other, every minute of Widows works like a dream. Sean Bobbitt’s superb cinematography captures the scope of various landscapes. Be it the interiors of septic political hustle-bustle, the vast negative space and aggressively sterile furniture (contrasting whites everywhere), or the dark hideaways of clandestine empowerment. With the exteriors, everything seems to be in reach – Bobbitt knows every inch of the frame, so we are able to simply step into it and experience the shifts in neighborhoods, social class, race groups, for yourself.
In one of the most talked about, and lauded-over, sequences of 2018, the camera perches on the front of a car, as it journeys from one area of poverty to a prospering estate in a matter of minutes. The short journey only emphasizes the fine line between the poor and the rich; in technical filmic terms, it is a masterful moment of cinematography. Only a partial angle of the windshield do we see (until the camera pans, and we see the same view from the other side), but not the characters having a conversation inside.
That very extract of dialogue also plays its part, though. The conversation between a venting Jack Mulligan and his assistant, Siobhan, is the only time in the movie where she is actually the dominant figure with him. Usually following him around, or doing his minor dirty work, here Siobhan verbally blasts Mulligan into submission. These flourishes and complexities of character are both illuminating and inspiring. Such personal moments at times, and aplenty, that McQueen doesn’t shove down your throat, instead offers glimpses of identity or potential for greatness.
Steve McQueen is meticulous with the details, the plot, and the technical aspects. He takes his time at the film’s close, wrapping things up like any good clean narrative, then permitting characters to just sit in coffee shops and readjust their lives somehow. This is masterful filmmaking on multiple levels. Thrills and set-pieces are constructed with a tenacity and intricate fingers.
But there is also a contemplative pace, with sucker punches and all-too-real pluckings of the heart strings. No sentimentality or plodding along, just a real panache and methodical delivery. This kind of magnetic hold on his audience has to have his name spoken in conversations about the Best Director Oscar.
And like piece-for-piece on-screen, the rest of the crew behind the scenes warrant big old pats on the back too. Hans Zimmer’s score is grounded, bumping on the humanity / crime-wave theme at all the right places. Editor Joe Walker has magic scissors here, an Oscar nomination would be very well-deserved. Bouncing us back and forth between scenes of action, character arcs, time-shifts. An immaculate rhythm all of its own. Perhaps the best of the year.
But let’s talk about Gillian Flynn. Transcending the words and tone from one culture to another feels like a tricky venture. Flynn reramps Lynda La Plante’s British version into the American psyche with an assured chutzpah. Her dialogue rolls off the tongues like every single word means something. The words snap, crackle, and pop off the page, matching the discourse of each given moment. A serious contender for gold.
There’s also room for such prods at relevant real-time issues, without ever being preachy or out of place. “This is America”, Veronica retorts to Alice’s dumbfounded reaction on where to purchase guns. Or her eye-roll and instant dismissal of Linda’s “You were married to a guy?”. McQueen and Flynn also throw in a startling flashback of a police shooting of a black young man, threading further into the film’s emotional core.
Viola Davis is stupendously good. It’s a nuanced performance from the actress, whose Oscar nominated clips may have thus far been of a woman sobbing and screaming. In Widows, Veronica has every right to roar at the world, but beyond her very brief yelp early on, Davis has a kind of strong-willing, gritty composure.
The actress’ stature needs no buffing, for this is a movie where every single cast member have their moments in the sun. Even the oh-so-brief, but brilliant turns from Jackie Weaver and Carrie Coon are appropriately ample.
In the mix of all the anger, resentment, grief, are acting forces of nature that shine scene after scene. Too numerous to mention here, but shout outs to Michelle Rodriguez, who goes full-drama without the hard-ass frills. Even Liam Neeson has a touching moment of red-eyed tears at a funeral.
Or Daniel Kaluuya as Jatemme, when he is not listening to radio or learning Spanish, he is sticking a knife into a guy in a wheelchair – this year’s Tommy DeVito? And then Robert Duvall, a cantankerous politician, sure, but a father with feelings too. One instance when his head falls into his hands, “Oh, my son”, is undeniably heartbreaking. Both the latter are dark horses for Best Supporting Actor, let me tell you.
Most valued player? Well, that’s Elizabeth Debicki as Alice, a young woman who maybe needs to let her hair down more than anyone. Marooned with an abusive spouse, and manipulating mother, Debicki demonstrates Alice’s desolation with her first emotive scenes. Seeing Alice’s demeanor change from frightened mouse to empowered lioness is mesmerizing, not only a fine example of character development, but also a stunning piece of acting.
The moment Alice slaps Veronica back, and declares she would not be victimized anymore, I cheered. In those few seconds, Alice became a new woman, earning the rightful respect of us, the audience, and the rarely-compassionate Veronica. Would make a crowd-pleasing Oscar nomination clip too. So although book-ended by jeopardous heists, Widows is not so much about the green of the bills, as it is about these captivating women regaining self-worth.