Widows (2018)

Steve McQueen | 2hr 10min

Whether he is constructing an anthology series as enterprising as Small Axe or a character study as singularly focused as Shame, Steve McQueen rarely aims for anything less then hugely ambitious storytelling, though in the forward momentum of Widow’s energetic narrative, he crafts what is his most sprawling film yet. When professional thief Harry Rawlings’ plot to rob mob boss Jamal Manning leads to the death of him and his crew, the shrapnel ricochets through Chicago’s crime rings, political campaigns, and most crucially, the grieving women who the deceased left behind. They were never fully aware of their husbands’ exploits, and neither do they really even know each other, and yet just as McQueen efficiently wraps a number plot threads around each other, so too does he unite his ensemble around a second heist targeting tipped political candidate, Jack Mulligan.

In effect, this is Steve McQueen’s take on a Michael Mann urban crime drama, as Widows navigates the chaos and corruption of Chicago’s most powerful players with slick pacing and dynamic camerawork that keeps us from growing too comfortable in any one scene. The opening car chase that sees Harry and his crew make a panicked getaway from the police lands us right in the thick of the action, with the only time to breathe being in those aptly-timed cutaways to their modest home lives. The tension between these husbands and wives is evident, but compared to the shooting and explosions it is a peaceful refuge where we can begin to understand these characters outside the frenzy.

Interiors shot like a Michael Mann film – clean modernist architecture, large glass windows, and a pale blue wash over the sets.

Most of all, it is in the flashbacks to Harry and Veronica’s marriage where we recognise perhaps the greatest loss that has taken place, and the grief which follows her in its wake. Though they evidently love each other, there is a melancholy hanging in the air hinting at some irreconcilable sorrow, and McQueen takes another leaf out of Mann’s book in washing these clean, modern interiors with pale blue lighting. Beyond Veronica’s home, McQueen’s colour palettes fall more into murky teals, bringing gorgeously lit warehouses, shooting ranges, and Chicago’s night-time exteriors into a realm of uneasy gloom.

A consistent aesthetic dedication to this teal lighting through Chicago’s exteriors, warehouses, and a shooting range – a common pattern through McQueen’s films.

In this dour setting, the criminals tearing apart the corrupt system are just as vile as those implementing it, leaving little room for ordinary citizens to live truly free, secure lives. The notebook that Harry left behind detailing the planned heist on Mulligan’s manor thus becomes a lifeline for the remaining widows to regain the financial security that their husbands once provided, and in following through on it, they consequentially undermine the tight-knit groups of powerful men who strive to keep them in their places.

McQueen capitalises superbly on the talents of his huge cast here, led by Viola Davis whose stern presence becomes the compelling centre upon which much of this narrative pivots. Her deadpan expression only barely masks the vulnerability and deep torment that her grief wreaks on her mind, exposing behind it a raw vulnerability that she knows she must hide to get by.

If anyone is Davis’ equal in this cast, it is Daniel Kaluuya’s vicious, psychotic mob enforcer, Jatemme, who even with his limited screen time is far more terrifyingly memorable than many more significant characters. If he isn’t carrying out Jamal’s dirty work himself by torturing a disabled man in a wheelchair for information, then he will happily let his henchmen torment targets for him, while he calmly sits and watches television in their home. At Jatemme’s most frightening, McQueen formally ties his energetic camera movement to Kaluuya’s simmering temper after the discovery of some subordinates who have been slacking off. His diminutive stature, cold eyes, and menacing stare down of the men who he is seconds away from shooting are all superbly captured by the Hitchcockian 360-degree shot circling them, suspensefully anticipating the burst of violence that we know is coming.

One of the film’s greatest shots, circling Kaluuya as he stares down these two subordinates, forcing them to rap, and then shooting them. A truly chilling character.

Because as compellingly written as these characters are, it is equally the daring visual choices that McQueen is making around them which lends such gravity to their motivations and actions. It is especially the spoilt privilege of Colin Farrell’s disinterested politician, Mulligan, which receives this stylistic bravado, as elegant tracking shots through hotels soak in the opulent décor, and elsewhere note the stark economic disparity between his mansion and the impoverished Chicago neighbourhoods he is meant to represent. In one unbroken take, McQueen fixes the camera to the bonnet of his car while he drives home from a rally, and in observing the changing infrastructure of its surroundings, it becomes apparent just how out of touch he is.

Another visual highlight of the film, as McQueen plants his camera on the bonnet of Colin Farrell’s car and then observes the shift in scenery from Chicago’s beaten-down infrastructure to his opulent mansion.
The parallels between Harry Rawlings and Harry Lyme are significant, and Liam Neeson is well-cast in this role that has minimal screen time yet which carries a huge presence.

As Widows’ narrative bounces across Chicago through thickly plotted developments, McQueen patiently winds it towards the climactic heist that we have been waiting for since the start. Very gradually, the deeply entrenched noir roots of this plot reveal themselves even further, touching on The Third Man in the shady parallels between the deceitful Harry Rawlings and Harry Lyme, and calling on the meticulously executed robbery of The Asphalt Jungle in the final set piece.

By the time the political stakes of the film are settled between the wealthy elites and Jamal’s violent mob, there is no great hope that this city will be any better off than it was before, and yet McQueen does offer some solace in the newfound independence of Veronica and her associates who might finally be able to live out from under the shadow of these powerful men. This dip into genre filmmaking may not have been the most obvious move for McQueen at this point in his career, but the complex landscape of systematic, moral degradation that he so deftly builds through Widows’ rolling narrative and dazzling cinematography carries on the uncompromising style of storytelling that he has so shrewdly built his name on.

An elegant composition using these diner mirrors to divide the two widows, yet also binding them closer than ever.

Widows is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

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