The British director Steve McQueen has marked himself as above the pack of British filmmakers in the last decade with his previous three features, Hunger (still his best), Shame and his Oscar-winning 12 Years A Slave. Ever since Shame he has been wetting his toes in America, and of course 12 Years A Slave is as American of a story as you can tell. He started out with more experimental short films and other kinds of visual art, and even won the much-sought-after Turner Prize. Widows is unabashedly his most mainstream film to date, and it’s to an extent because of that his worst film. The long takes, brutality and methodical nature of his imagery is somewhat lost in adapting this old TV series to the big screen.
Widows is based on the 1983 BBC series of the same name, which was written by Lynda La Plante. McQueen transports the action from 1980s London to contemporary Chicago, which means McQueen can tackle race, gender, politics, corruption and crime with this tale of four widows carrying out a heist after their husbands are killed while committing a robbery. Viola Davis plays Veronica Rawlings, who heads the group of widows after her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) is killed but leaves her $2,000,000 in debt to crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who is also running for political office as alderman. She ends up bringing together some of the other widows of her husband’s crew to pull off a crime that Harry had already planned out at the time of his death.
Despite it’s ensemble cast, Viola Davis’ character commands her crew, and in turn her presence makes it her film. Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo round off her crew. Colin Farrell plays Jack Mulligan, who is running against Jamal and is part of an Irish-American political dynasty. Robert Duvall plays Jack’s father, Tom, who represents the old guard, even goes on a racist rant, which is a shocking moment in the film (Duvall was a Republican for years, but due to the more overt racism of the GOP in recent years he has left the party.) Daniel Kaluuya plays Jamal’s brother Jatemme, who is his enforcer, and is coolly calculated in how savage he becomes. Lukas Haas has a slightly thankless role as the sugar daddy of one of the widows, and Liam Neeson’s presence is felt over the film as well, despite very little screentime.
When Widows came out in November, it seemed like a shoe-in for the Oscars, but in the end it didn’t receive a single nomination. Its most high-profile award nomination was Viola Davis for a Bafta for leading actress. The film made a respectable amount of money, but still “underperformed” at the box office despite near universal critical acclaim. But coming out during November against the behemoth of a shitfest known as Bohemian Rhapsody and more family-friendly films that also arrived at the same time may have hurt. It also could’ve just been racism and sexism from American audience members who didn’t want to a film about women, and primarily about women of colour. It could’ve been it was too “arty” and “serious” to have a huge crossover appeal to a bigger mainstream audience
However, it’s a rock-solid, unique take on the age-old heist movie with an interesting sociopolitical angle. The performances are solid across the board, even if I wish McQueen had one huge showy set piece to cement the film’s greatness. It’s a film that will most certainly have a life after its initial theatrical run, because it approaches serious topics like political brutality, interracial marriage and sexism but for the most part works as a rip-roaring heist film about desperate people having to resort to desperate actions.
The disc is fairly light on special features, but contains a trilogy of featurettes, which are dubbed “Widows Unmasked: A Chicago Story.” This runs to a little under a hour, and is accompanied by a stills gallery and the theatrical trailer.