Early buzz was that “Widows”, is the new “Set It Off” the 1996 Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith female bank heist thriller. For one thing “Widows” is definitely not the film I expected from British filmmaker Steve McQueen, but it’s also not “Set It Off”. Steve McQueen’s film is a blistering and brilliant and hard punching modern masterpiece. It’s a noir-ish heist film, political thriller, a story of victims who will be victims no more, a commentary on race and class, and a multi-family drama with Shakespeare level stakes.
In fact, “Widows” is based on a British TV series from the 1980s. McQueen’s “Widows” has every potential to be an Americanized update that could have been a Netflix limited series. “Widows” does get extremely crowded at times and a limited series wouldn’t have been a bad idea. I admire McQueen as a director. His films are tough, raw and real, but he’s always directed his films in a distinctly art house way. Moving his way from art house dramas, McQueen shows an affinity for a big studio genre piece right off the bat. His opening grabs you by the throat and gets your heart racing.
Five years ago, Steve McQueen was in theaters with “12 Years a Slave”, a historical drama about slavery that took home the Best Picture Oscar, along with Best Supporting Actress and Best Screenplay. Like all of McQueen’s films, it was a difficult movie to process, but the helmer’s skills were easily followed, adding to an already impressive filmography like his films “Hunger” and “Shame.” While he doesn’t sacrifice any of his artistry within “Widows”, McQueen is hunting for something more commercial with “Widows”.
McQueen gets help from author Gillian Flynn, author/writer of Ben Affleck’s “Gone Girl”. “Widows” is powerful and riveting. He has a real knack for commercial, genre filmmaking, sprinkled with just the right amount of sly social commentary to give it a provocative edge. McQueen and Gillian Flynn are a great screenwriting team, creating a razor-sharp, beautifully balanced screenplay, the two are maestros at moving from one plot thread to another while always keeping the entirety of the piece on point.
Not only is the direction and screenplay astonishing, so is the ensemble cast. This is the ensemble cast of the year. All four women are terrific, with Viola Davis coming off of her best actress Oscar win for Denzel Washington’s “Fences”. Davis is owning as the conflicted head of the gang, her performance is cool and collected when it needs to be, operatic at others, with her toting around her cute dog named Olivia who made a breakthrough role in this year’s “Game Night”, this Dog is going places! Watching her throughout the film you can’t help but worry if she is gonna make it to the closing credits. Viola Davis is a tower of strength, when she breaks down we’re reminded like her Oscar winning scene in “Fences”, that no one cries onscreen with such realism quite like her. Michelle Rodriguez (“Fast and Furious”) and Cynthia Erivo (the best thing about “Bad Times At The El Royale”) are similarly good and perfectly cast, but of the remaining crew, Elizabeth Debicki is phenomenal and easily achieved screen stealing status. She gets the meatiest part aside from Davis, as a formerly abused moll looking for a way out.
Receiving almost as much screen time is Colin Farrell as politician Jack Mulligan. Farrell appears to be having a blast as the politician stuck in a tricky situation. While at times it’s obvious in Farrell’s voice that he is trying hard at hitting the Chicago accent, his performance is stellar. Legend Robert Duvall also a scene stealer as Farrell’s powerhouse dad. “Get Out’s” Daniel Kaluuya is also fantastic as Farrell’s political opponents psychotic brother, who works as a muscle.
I really admired the depiction of all four women not having any experience at this sort of thing, as shown in the funny vignettes in which Debecki purchases a getaway van at a bidding auction, the way she achieves buying guns. There is also one of the film’s best scenes, where they make a mistake during the heist. It is a really nice and fresh touch to this cliched genre, it’s something that any amateur first timer could have made. Director Steve McQueen has shown here that he has a firm grasp on staging action and violent set-pieces. He has said in a short video before the film, thanking the audience for coming and that this was his passion project. It’s obvious that he wanted to reach a wider audience and this film will deliver the goods.
This is a thinking person’s heist movie and a female empowerment film, but not in a corny or condescending way. At 2 hours and 9 minutes it does feel a lot longer than that. Although McQueen has said that the original cut was 3 hours long. But where Widows separates itself is in McQueen’s visuals and ingenious, informative camerawork. In one particularly brilliant sequence we follow Farrell’s politician from a political rally in a poor part of town, into a waiting car with his wife, and listen in on their heated conversation from outside the car. We never get to see their faces. We hear the intense argument within the car, but the camera sits on the hood and our eyes are always drawn to the neighborhood. The camera slowly pans around, watching a shift from the poor ghettos to a much wealthier side of town.
The four women here would have been a great ensemble cast for a female version of “Heat”. After seeing “Widows” I think McQueen is capable of directing it. It would be amazing. As always, Steve McQueen is an original and bold storyteller, delivering dazzling creativity. Even when “Widows” delves into pulpy, blood-soaked material, everything is filtered through the lens of a true artist and filmmaker. It’s hard to come up or say anything bad about “Widows”, other than it certainly is one of the best films of the year and it’s unfair to give it any less than 4 stars.
GRADE: ★★★★ (4) / ★★★★★ (5)