What could have remained just a solid crime thriller about bereft women who take matters into their own hands has been electrified by racial, political and gender issues in Widows. Handling a genre piece for the first time, director Steve McQueen ups the ante of nearly every scene by doubling and tripling the import by various means, creating in the process a provocative portrait of life on the troubled south side of Chicago. Commercial prospects look robust for this potent female-centric action drama.
Adapted by McQueen and Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, Widows is based on two six-part British television crime drama seasons broadcast in 1983 and 1985 and written by Lynda La Plante, who also penned a novelization published in 1985. La Plante is best known as the writer of the classic British TV series Prime Suspect.
McQueen seems intent here on keeping the drama sizzling on several burners at every moment. Most filmmakers would have been content to stick with the surface story, which is certainly involving and good as far as it goes. But McQueen, in his first outing since 12 Years a Slave five years ago, really loads it on in nearly every scene, nay, every shot, as if to prove that he can deliver the kinetic goods with the best of them while also talking about the things he cares about most.
The director slashingly puts across loads of incident, much of it grimly tragic, in the first few minutes. Veronica (Viola Davis) and husband Harry (Liam Neeson), hardly spring chickens, engage in some very deep kissing in bed in their stylish apartment. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) tends to her dress shop. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) has a jerky boyfriend, while Belle (Cynthia Erivo) is a hairdresser. In short order, all the women are bereft, their men killed in some shockingly explosive action.
The primary focus throughout is Veronica, who seems most deeply aggrieved but soon learns she has the most to lose, as local black gang boss Jamal (Brian Tyree Henry) informs her that her late husband owes him $2 million; if she doesn’t fork it over within the month, his hyper-violent goon Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya, very scary) will make sure it’s the last payment she never makes.
Also in the mix are longtime Chicago politicos Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall) and his hotshot son Jack (Colin Farrell). Demographically, these Irish guys know they’re very last-century, their ways of fixing elections and paying people off clearly nearing an end. But they’re still holding on, brutally, if need be, and they’ve rearranged precincts to stay in the game a bit longer.
Quite early on, developments begin accumulating that are best not revealed, as the most important of them are unanticipated and complicate the narrative in ways that are generally enriching of the drama rather than just jammed in for the sake of surprise. Still, it can be said that Veronica discovers something about her husband’s business practices she never knew, something that establishes all the women as having been so wronged that, despite their lack of experience at pulling something off, they’ve got to plow ahead with a risky endeavor both for revenge and their own sense of worth. Their motivation feels entirely legitimate.
Davis’ Veronica, the victim of longtime deception as well as a double-whammy loss, remains at the center of the tricky plot, her need for vengeance, comprehension and, ultimately, survival providing the most burning motivation of all the women. Stern, driven, unstoppable and haunted, Veronica is the axle around which the rest of the action turns, and Davis is reliably outstanding in the role.
The other woman with a bit of extra dimension is Debicki’s Alice, whose loony mother (Jacki Weaver) essentially pushes her into prostitution, an assignation that results in an equivocal entanglement with a messed up businessman (Jon Bernthal). Rodriguez has the least interesting role as a conflicted mom, but Erivo emerges as a cool and muscular action heroine in the later-going.
McQueen and his ultra-adept cinematographer Sean Bobbitt find myriad unexpected ways of staging and shooting familiar generic scenes. One striking interlude has Farrell’s politico and his assistant engage in a long conversation in a car without being seen, the camera instead surveying the journey from in front and above so as to sharply illustrate the economic difference between one precinct and another. The pair have come up with fresh ways to shoot expository and frequently close-quarter scenes all the way through.
As amplified from the original material for today’s political moment and sensibilities, Widows is a solid piece of genre fiction made more resonant by how its creators have bored down into its characters and sociological implications in ways specifically designed to examine some of the rotten underpinnings of business as usual. As often happened back in the noir melodramas of the 1940s and 1950s, an urban crime story here once again serves as a successful vehicle for exploring what ails a society.
Production companies: New Regency, See-Saw Films, Lammas Park
Cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson, Garret Dillahunt, Carrie Coon, Jacki Weaver, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Lukas Haas, Matt Walsh, Kevin J. O’Connor, Michael Harney
Director: Steve McQueen
Screenwriters: Gillian Flynn, Steve McQueen, based on Widows by Lynda La Plante
Producers: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Steve McQueen, Arnon Milchan
Executive producers: Bergen Swanson, Rose Garnett, Daniel Battsek, Sue Bruce-Smith
Director of photography: Sean Bobbitt
Production designer: Adam Stockhausen
Costume designer: Jenny Eagan
Editor: Joe Walker
Music: Hans Zimmer
Casting: Francine Maisler
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala)
Rated R, 130 minutes