Directed by: Steve McQueen || Produced by: Steve McQueen, Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Arnon Milchan
Screenplay by: Gillian Flynn, Steve McQueen || Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson
Music by: Hans Zimmer || Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt || Edited by: Joe Walker || Country: United Kingdom, United States || Language: English
Running Time: 129 minutes
2013 was a breakout year for British auteur, Steve McQueen. Despite having written and directed two critically acclaimed, financially successful features (Hunger , Shame ), he remained under the international radar until the knockout Best Picture Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave (2013), which catapulted not only himself but also Best Supporting Actress Oscar-winner Lupita N’yongo to fame. McQueen has maintained a low profile since that production, however, in contrast with the mainstream success of N’yongo (e.g. The Force Awakens , Black Panther ), a couple music videos and BBC productions notwithstanding.
His latest feature, 2018’s Widows, is an interesting if not innovative followup to his previous films. McQueen has made portraying difficult, uncomfortable, some would say excruciating material his modus operandi, from Irish Republican Army hunger strikes to sex addiction to the American slave trade; Widows traffics in similar if more accessible subject-matter, including corrupt Chicago politics, race-relations, and subtle power manipulations of the patriarchy wrapped around a more generic crime drama heist plot. Though these diverse themes coalesce throughout the quasi-unconventional social commentary of the film’s narrative, over time McQueen’s direction and Gillian Flynn’s screenplay divert more and more attention to that narrative’s less interesting elements.
Let us start with the good: Viola Davis gives a subtle, dynamic performance as the wife of a crook (Liam Neeson) who is ostensibly killed during a heist job gone bad, along with the rest of his crew. Not long into the first act, the gangster and aspiring politician whom her husband robbed (Brian Tyree Henry), comes to collect her debt, which forces Davis to portray a wide emotional range of grief, anger, confusion, and basic survival instincts. She enlists the help of two others widowed during the same botched robbery (Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki), as well as neighborhood single mother (Cynthia Erivo) to perform another heist on a former target of her husband’s to pay back this debt. As a function of this heist plot, Davis is given room to shine as a reluctant leader, as well as a frightened civilian pulled into the depths of organized crime.
Other positives include McQueen’s general portrayal of Chicagoan organized crime, particularly via supporting actor Daniel Kaluuya, and its intersection with Chicago politics via solid performances from Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall as corrupt public servants. All scenes with Kaluuya have great tension, including a couple slow, foreboding Steadi-Cam long-takes that precede harsh violence. Farrell and Duvall’s commentary on city politics echo themes from HBO’s The Wire (2002-2008), and hint at a far more interesting story beyond the confines of our titular widows’ heist.
The main problems with that heist are the main problems of the movie, and they have to do with everything beyond Viola Davis’ protagonist. To be blunt, I found Neeson’s performance flat and boring and didn’t care for the bland twist involving his character. I found the latter reveal at best unbelievable and at worst Shyamalan-esque. The tragic backstory involving their characters’ marriage is striking, yet it’s never covered by the film except in an oblique, indirect way. Equally uninspiring are the remaining principle cast, from Rodriguez to Debicki to Erivo, all of whose performances are forgettable and arcs, formulaic and contrived. The only character of this heist team toward whom I gravitated was Davis’, while each time the camera shifted focus to the supporting female cast I waited for a quick transition back to Kaluuya, who’s subplot ended up being only that.
Further problems can be found in aspects of McQueen’s direction, which surprised me. In keeping with the tight, close-up focused European cinematography of 12 Years a Slave and especially Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color (2013), McQueen uses tight-shots more frequently and unconventionally than most mainstream Western filmmakers. He often uses them here in place of establishing wide shots or to set the mood before a more visceral sequence. More or less all his abrupt close-ups I found pointless or contrary to the purpose of a given scene, particularly in a thematically diverse film such as this with an ensemble cast. McQueen’s instincts to visualize the film as more and more intimate clash with the story’s wide focus, its multi-faceted, subplot heavy “story of a city.” The best shot in the entire film is a long-take via a camera fixed atop the exterior of Farrell’s car, using the vehicle as a sort of dolly illustrating his travel from low-income neighborhoods to gentrified housing to his near picturesque mansion; this hints at subplots concerning political corruption and social stratification that are way more interesting than our principle heist plot or its boring characters.
In the end, I found Widows to be a disappointment. While the subject-matter is topical and aspects of its broad narrative are interesting, the project is undercut by a weak cast outside of Davis, Kaluuya, Farrell, and Duvall, only the first of whom has substantial screentime; McQueen’s directorial style furthermore clashes with the story’s wide scope and lame Hollywood twist. I think McQueen, an impressive filmmaker though he may be, was the wrong fit for this project, which may have required an additional draft by a screenwriter who wasn’t Gillian Flynn. What kept me engaged at all was Davis’ great lead role and performance, as well as more general aspects of the film’s crime drama, though both are parts of a larger story with which I just didn’t connect.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Widows is an ambitious, dramatic mish-mash of heist plots, social commentary, and Oscar bait-political drama. Parts of that and its cast are interesting, but much of it is not, including a twist that isn’t earned and a plethora of weak supporting characters. Whether the latter is the function of miscast actors or Gillian Flynn’s weak characterizations is unclear, but what is clear is how ineffective Steve McQueen’s attempt at an identifiable visual style is.
— However… Viola Davis is a strong actress in a strong lead role. Daniel Kaluuya, Colin Farrell, and Robert Duvall hint at a more interesting story that falls by the wayside.
–> ON THE FENCE
? They should’ve included that dog in the heist. Talk about “unconventional.”