At first glance, the heist-movie plot of Widows couldn’t be further from the arthouse work of director Steve McQueen’s early career. But in his hands, a fairly typical premise becomes something else entirely, simultaneously a genre flick, emotive melodrama and political satire.
At the centre of the film is Viola Davis as Veronica Rawlings, the recently widowed wife of professional robber Harry (Liam Neeson). It’s a stunning performance, all at once strong, vulnerable and brave. Genre film or not, Davis’ depiction of profound grief is tremendously effective, elicited by McQueen’s audacious direction.
The opening sequence cross cuts between a night-time heist gone violently wrong, with Harry and his colleagues dying in hailstorm of bullets and fire, and Veronica tenderly embracing her husband in between their crisp white bed sheets. McQueen consistently deploys such devices throughout the film, using the reflections in windows and musical cues to conjure Veronica’s bereaved memories.
The second of this year’s second women-led heist flicks, Widows is as thrilling – and as relevant – as it gets. Although Veronica is at the centre of the film, her co-stars Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez as the wives of Harry’s associates, are given more than sufficient depth for us to empathise when they enter the frame. Crucially, the women share a common goal and experience, yet have wildly different backgrounds, thrown together under tragic circumstances.
Those circumstances involve gangster Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who arrives demanding compensation from Veronica for the loot Harry stole from him before his untimely demise. Using Harry’s crime journal as leverage, Veronica recruits Debicki’s Alice and Rodriguez’s Linda to help her hit the next target on Harry’s list, which should net them enough to pay back Manning and then some.
This would more than enough material for a cracking heist flick, but McQueen elevates it with the political element that Manning – who is running for District Alderman – brings with him. Opposing Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the anointed son of incumbent Alderman Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall), it’s here that McQueen capitalises on the David Simon-esque racial politics.
In one astonishing shot, Mulligan the younger bickers with his aide about the city’s black people “killing each other”. As they enter Mulligan’s car, the camera stays outside, sitting at the front of the vehicle. As they move down the street, the camera pans from the dilapidated projects and across the windshield, briefly revealing that Mulligan’s driver is black, before completed its maneuver to settle at the left side of the car, revealing Mulligan’s enormous family home. In a single shot, McQueen distills the essence of the film’s political underpinnings, a thesis that culminates in the brief, thrilling heist sequence and a rousing conclusion.
The Toronto International Film Festival 2018 takes place from 6-16 September.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell