A crackling heist film elevated by its tackling of social issues
As Brit growing up in the ‘80s, I recall the original TV mini-series penned by Lynda la Plante. A complex drama, strong female characters, that brooding title card, and Lord that hair. Aesthetics aside, this tale was always ripe for an update, and what could be more fitting for this day and age than seeing women refusing to be victims in a man’s world. Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave) brought his indelible craft to deliver this crackling heist film, transplanting it to Chicago, a perfect socio-political setting to delve into issues of gender and race while stacking the film with an incredible cast. All the ingredients made it one of my most anticipated films of 2018, and damn did it deliver.
Widows kicks off in thrilling fashion, with a robbery gone wrong, Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his gang feeling the scene of the crime, eventually taking refuge in a garage. While attempting to make their escape, gunfire sets off an explosion, engulfing them in flames. We cut to Harry’s wife Veronica (Viola Davis), lying in bed, the space next to her empty, a sign of the vacuum Harry and indeed these men leave behind, and a portent of what is to come in the wake of their crimes. Deep in mourning, Veronica is confronted by local criminal Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), whose money went up in flames along with her husband and his crew, money that was intended to propel him into a political career. She’s given an ultimatum to repay what is owed or face the consequences. Her husband left behind his notebook, detailing his past jobs and plans for future jobs, including one that offers a solution to her problems. With Jamal’s threat hanging over them all, she recruits the remaining widows to complete the heist that will bring in enough money to pay off what they owe and get him out of their lives.
At its core, Widows is a heist film with all the accoutrements you’d expect, driven by the misdeeds of men. It’s brooding fare, as these women feel the pressure, not just the weight of their grief, but the need to up their game and get the job done, for their own survival. There’s a natural ease at how the film unfolds, but it’s still imbued with threat and urgency throughout. Not content with being superb genre fare, McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects) embrace the setting of Chicago to deftly weave in considerations of gender, race, capitalism, police, and political corruption. These things add depth while also helping inform the character studies that unfurl as the plot progresses.
In Chicago’s 18th ward, an area long represented by the Irish Mulligan family, third generation son Tom (Colin Farrell) is expected to take over the position from his father Jack (Robert Duvall). Their rule of the local political scene and skimming off the top of every business deal have solidified their grasp on local politics and crime, as well as their own sense of entitlement. Jamal, a local crime lord, looks to get in on the action by running against Tom. But the film’s focus is on the street level, and this small group of women caught up in this interweaving of crime and local politics. Viola Davis is the focal point of the ensemble, the driving force behind the scheme, and she dominates the screen, whether delivering a withering glance, a sharp remark, or an anguished scream. Michelle Rodriguez slips into her role as Linda with a natural ease, helping to show the personal ripple effects of the film’s opening bereavements. The film’s secret weapon is Elizabeth Debicki, and thankfully they bask in her height and presence rather than trying to subdue it. It further highlights her vulnerability, as we see her surrounded by abusive people trying to use her and cut her down to size. She’s also responsible for some of the more comedic moments in the film (buying a van and guns springs to mind) that endear you to her all the more. Each of these women bring their own struggles and backgrounds into the mix, show what they are enduring and taking from the experience, and that this isn’t just about survival, but the hope of a better life. Colin Farrell’s Jack Mulligan is a suitably grimy foil to the chilling Brian Tyree Henry as Jamal, the actor further burnishing his credentials here in a year when he has also delivered superb turns in Into the Spider-verse and If Beale Street Could Talk. Daniel Kaluuya once again demonstrates his ability to hold your attention, this time as cold, calculating, psychopath Jatemme, Jamal’s brother. From top to bottom, Widows is a smorgasbord of talent, with Cynthia Erivo, Robert Duvall, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon all making indelible marks with limited screen-time.
As in his previous works, McQueen demonstrates an exquisite cinematic shorthand, giving grace and depth to even the simplest shots. A tracking movement following a conversation in Mulligan’s car from an impoverished neighborhood to his opulent home conveys more about the economic and social divide than any verbose dialogue would. Often tackling weighty, sobering fare, his partnership with Flynn weaves in some tempering melodrama and moments of levity, at times offering respite from the grim proceedings and occasionally enhancing them. Pulpy noir-esque touches connect the film to its genre roots; things like an address on a matchbook or the serendipitous link between a sugar daddy and the need to understand some blue prints are apt for the film and slickly interwoven. Visceral violence, action, and emotion are driven home by Hans Zimmer’s minimal but affecting score. It’s thrilling fare, but the film never loses sight of these women at its center, their plight, and the process of empowerment as they take charge of their lives as well as the mess left behind by the greed of these men.
Widows is a lush and gritty film, showcasing superb work by cinematographer Sean Bobbit. This Blu-ray shows off the textured, cool palette well. From bright exteriors to the darker sequences, detail is sharp, with solid blacks, deep colors, and clear image throughout.
Extra features are a little disappointing. The film is a showcase for McQueen’s craft, as well as the talent he has assembled. A director’s audio commentary would have been most welcome; instead we’re limited to a few featurettes:
- Widows Unmasked — A Chicago Story: This overarching behind the scenes piece is made up of three parts, each comprised of footage and interviews, offering some nice insights into specific scenes and action sequences too.
- Plotting The Heist — The Story: Around 10 minutes long, primarily concerned with the inspiration of the original series and the retooled screenplay.
- Assembling The Crew — Production: Just shy of 30 minutes, it’s an above average behind the scenes piece.
- The Scene Of The Crime — Locations: Focuses on the setting and use of Chicago in the film.
- Gallery: Stills from the film
- Theatrical trailer
- Digital download code
The Bottom Line
Widows perfectly marries style and substance to elevate a superb piece of genre film-making. It’s an incisive look at contemporary politics and society, with a naturalism that comes from immersion in the plight of these women, blighted by the green of men, as they take control of their fate. A superbly well crafted film that is surely one of the finest releases of 2018.
Widows is available on 4K and Blu-ray from February 5th, 2019.