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Steve McQueen’s Widows brilliantly straddles commerce and art cinema

Steve McQueen’s Widows brilliantly straddles commerce and art cinema

November 01
18:30 2018

Widows is the last film we expected from Steve McQueen, but that is becoming the British writer-director’s auteur signature. Shame didn’t prepare us for 12 Years a Slave. That doesn’t prepare us for this. Further back, McQueen’s award-winning video art didn’t seem the work of a man who would, in a not-far-off future, accomplish a glossy American heist movie that overleaps the art crowd altogether.

Doesn’t exclude it, of course. The art crowd can grab a ride on this flying monster’s paws. For Widows is a culture-commerce crossover, magnificently co-opting an old British TV series (1983, author Lynda La Plante) to create a Chicago-set heist drama, co-scripted by McQueen with Gillian Flynn, the Gone Girl author.

Drama, I say, not thriller. Widows refuses to stop at making our blood race with suspense and excitement. The story’s adrenaline ride may start with a montage crosscutting between a bed scene (Viola Davis and Liam Neeson) and a fatality-strewn crime getaway. A literal **sensored**-**sensored**-bang-bang opening. But we quickly learn that this ride is set in Vanity Fairground, full of rich and swirling themes. Family fracture. Religion. Big-city dynastic corruption (Colin Farrell and dad Robert Duvall sparring over divine-right control of a Chicago district). And race, class, gender.

The widows of the robbers slain in the getaway are black, white and Hispanic: respectively Davis, Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez. A fourth woman (Cynthia Erivo of Bad Times at the El Royale), also black, joins them as getaway driver. The money that vanished with their menfolk will be re-earned, or re-heisted. It won’t just buy off the African-American heavy mob on their tails. (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya has a terrifying through-cameo as this gang’s hit man.) It may also buy them time, hope and escape. These women don’t own their lives. They may soon.

From left, Elizabeth Debicki, Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo

Widows could have gone hopelessly wrong. It could have been a trendy treatise on female empowerment, plonked by a killjoy message-monger atop a thriller tale, to crush the life from it. Instead the film is all life. McQueen has a vivifying idea in every scene. Watch the moment Davis and her little white dog revisit Neeson’s old HQ, a dark, funky, unkempt warehouse. The dog sentimentally sniffs old scent centres. That’s dogs. Then Davis does the same, pushing her face into an old remembered jacket. That’s humans. Love bonds. Instinct is omni-species.

The four female leads are electrifying. In every possible way they make their crime-path choice one of life or death. More precisely: a choice between endangered lives and the living death of dependency and indenture, social, sexual or racial. An hour and 20 minutes into the plot, there is a huge “reveal”. It disorients us. Then we realise we’re not oriented anyway. That’s the power and spell of Widows. You don’t know where it’s going until it ends. Then you realise that, to become the masterwork it is, it couldn’t have gone anywhere else.


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