After winning Best Picture at the 2013 Academy Awards for 12 Years A Slave, director Steve McQueen was viewed as one of the most talented movie makers in Hollywood. He was the recipient of the Turner Prize, the highest award given to a British visual artist. He was named to the TIME 100 in 2014. He’s more or less the Steve McQueen, decades after the film star passed away in 1980.
Despite all that, he’s not made a movie since 12 Years A Slave – until now. Widows, his latest feature film, is a sleek, intense crime drama that keeps your attention until the final shot – and it proves that McQueen can do any genre he sets his mind to.
It’s the work of an auteur having a blast, something the script (which McQueen also wrote, alongside Gone Girl author/screenwriter Gillian Flynn) pokes some fun at: early on, Robert Duvall’s Tom Mulligan speaks with his son, aspiring politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), and they go back and forth on Jack’s latest acquisition, an abstract painting worth thousands of dollars. Jack says the painting is art; Tom says it’s wallpaper. Art. Wallpaper. It’s a funny, light scene in the middle of the intense proceedings, but it’s really McQueen having some fun at his own expense.
Focusing on a group of widows (surprise!) after their criminal husbands die during a heist, the women embark on a heist of their own to repay their late husbands’ death. The acting is top-notch, and no surprise as to why, when the cast boasts Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Liam Neeson, Elizabeth Debicki, Jon Bernthal, Carrie Coon, Brian Tyree Henry, and Daniel Kaluuya, alongside Duvall and Farrell. Every single scene brims with energy, and as usual, Viola Davis brings a steely-eyed intensity to her role as Veronica Rawlings. Somehow, it’s still undercut by the sadness that her husband is gone, which lends Veronica a softness that you don’t expect from someone planning a major heist.
The two standouts of the film, however, are Elizabeth Debicki and Daniel Kaluuya. When the film begins, we see all of the women with their husbands, dealing with every day life – at a store, lying in bed. Debicki (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) is shown with a black eye, while her husband Florek (Bernthal, in little more than a cameo) gives her a dangerous look over breakfast. This is a woman who has suffered at the hands of men, and later on, we see she has suffered at the hands of her own mother – she decides that she won’t suffer any more.
Kaluuya (Get Out), meanwhile, brings a terrifying swagger to Jatemme (think ‘I love you’, but in French), the enforcer-like brother of Brian Tyree Henry’s Jamal, Jack Mulligan’s political opponent for a Chicago ward. The half-lidded gaze, the creeping smile, the physical presence he imposes on every character who wrongs him (or even looks at him offhandedly), Jatemme is a gangster of the worst order – and Kaluuya brings him to life in a way that is, frankly, amazing.
McQueen weaves the narrative of the film together with that of Chicago – and, in a larger sense, America – as deftly as can be managed. There’s a scene where Jack Mulligan and his assistant get into a car and drive through Chicago, yet the camera stays on the outside of the car, eavesdropping on their conversation as we see the neighbourhood change from the projects to gentrified mansions. Everything in the film is like this; issues of race, class, and gender all come to a head, whether it’s black men being treated poorly by white politicians, police officers being on the take, women being invisible because they are ‘less than’ men – while it is all excellent and more relevant than ever, perhaps the only complaint might be that some of it is a bit on the nose.
Even so, everything in this movie holds your attention, right until the last few scenes, which almost seem as if McQueen is letting you exhale after holding in your breath for the duration of the film. Widows is a beautifully shot, intense film, and you’ll be on the edge of your seat the whole way through. Don’t worry, though – it’s a fun ride.
Widows arrives in theatres across North America on November 16, 2018.
You can find the author of this review, Shoaib Alli, on Twitter at @SNSAlli. He’s quite a cool guy, you may like him.