“Widows”: a Pulp Fiction with Class

Steve McQueen’s work has always been weighty and dour, but with a distinct sense of purpose. Viewers are probably most familiar with the Best Picture-winning 12 Years a Slave, but McQueen’s other features depict a sex addict (Shame) and the Irish hunger strikes during The Trouble (Hunger). Widows, McQueen’s newest feature shares some of the dour coloring of his previous work, but is much more suited for general audiences. McQueen draws potent performances from a rich ensemble that features Viola Davis, another Oscar winner. The story, penned by McQueen and Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl, is interesting from both the perspective of plot and its peculiar, non-linear structure. Eminently more approachable that the rest of Steve McQueen’s oeuvre, Widows is that rare concoction of pulpy action and piquant social commentary.

The early plot beats are revealed in a non-linear fashion, instructing the audience that not everything will be unfolding normally in this story. We start off seeing a heist in-progress, with four men stealing a large sum of money. But, all of this action has clearly unfolded in the past, as the heist is cut with scenes of four women, interacting with the men pulling off the heist. Things do not go well, and then we see each woman alone, preparing to attend various funerals of their dearly departed. It’s a great technique for setting up the story and introducing us to the ensemble.

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“Never let a good tragedy go to waste” – a Politician’s Creed

Viola Davis heads that group, and she’s just the best. She plays Veronica Rawlings, wife of Henry, a renowned local thief (Liam Neeson). The three other eponymous women are Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), and Amanda (Carrie Coon). While Veronica is struggling with her grief, she is visited by a local crime-boss-turned-politician named Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Jamal wants out of The Game, and so is running for Alderman against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the son of a long-time incumbent. And that $2 million that Harry stole just happened to belong to Jamal. He and his henchman (Daniel Kaluuya) threaten Veronica, insisting that she find a way to repay the money.

When she discovers a diary that belonged to Henry, detailing all of his past heists and meticulously laying out a blueprint for a new $5 million job, Veronica knows just what she’ll do to pay back the crime boss: she’ll recruit the other widows for one big score.

The ensemble cast is well-equipped to handle McQueen’s taught crime story. Davis can ably shift between some of the more harrowing emotional material and the badass crime boss stuff. Debicki and Rodriguez are also quite capable, even though they have to color their characters with a certain unwillingness, a certain desperation that makes their criminal turns believable. The men in the story are pretty great, too. Colin Farrell is the perfect kind of rich kid good-old-boy, desperate to escape his father’s long shadow but intimately dependent on his long reach and influence. Henry is a great crime boss, intimidating but calculating. Only Kaluuya’s character falls short for me – there are only so many times we can watch him show up, scare someone, and mutilate them before it gets tiresome and one-note. We get it – he’s mean.

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These guys are mean.  Like, very mean.  We get it.

The story of Widows unravels slowly and mysteriously. There’s a film noir feel to it all because so little is known at the beginning and it is up to Veronica to unveil new details to fill in the gaps. But, this isn’t really a “mystery” film, or even a pure crime story. It is a heist film with small elements of these other genres, a pulp fiction with a lot of class.

Look no further than some of the cinematography employed by McQueen. He has always been a fan of long sequences, of single takes that span minutes (none more jaw-dropping than a 17-minute oner near the climax of the film). McQueen can pack a lot of meaning into a camera, and he does so in Windows during a fascinating car ride sequence. It all begins as part of Jack Mulligan’s campaign stop, where he’s promising the politician’s promises: new jobs, grants for small businesses, etc. His reception by the mostly-black crowd isn’t very warm, even when he parades someone who has been helped by his program in the past. A reporter is more concerned with some recent criminal charges filed against him, but Jack just ignores him.

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Jack is so slimy.

Then the magic starts.

”Jack gets in the back of his car with his campaign aide, and the two fight about the direction of the race. They fight about ambition, they fight about their lives, they fight about the way this stupid city works, with a few choice racial epithets. All the while, the camera is focused on the reflection off the front window of the car as it travels to the next stop. All at once, the car turns down a street and the change in scenery is shocking: gone are the worn-down houses, the unkempt yards, and the 9-to-5 struggle, and here are the white picket fences, the 2000+ square yard houses, and the American dream. A car ride of two minutes took the politician from the poor black neighborhood to the rich white one, and he was bitching all the way – with a black man for a driver, to boot.

These are the kinds of thematic statements that you can find curled into various sequences in Widows. There is a lot of thought given to issues of race and class, but also of the idea of women empowerment and agency. Concepts dealing with the scope of political power, manipulation and deception, and physical intimidation are always hanging around the background, as Veronica starts to piece together her small part in a much grander story.

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There are other, more personal themes discussed as well: things like making friends, losing loved ones, and faltering under the expectations of the world. Widows also details how the cards can be stacked against minorities, who must do everything right and still get lucky to boot in order to win. This is a pregnant film, full of ideas to explored through repeat viewing and careful consideration.

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Steve McQueen is an elegant and practiced filmmaker, and has been since before his feature film debut with Hunger. But, his films were always on the weightier side, dealing with hunger strikes, sex addiction, and slavery. Widows has similar weight at time, but it is all couched in a more-approachable and crowd-pleasing shell. This is something of a pulpy heist film, with plenty of heart, feel, and insight.

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