The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Reviewed by Megan Porter.

Director Steve McQueen
Length 130 mins
Certificate 15
Rating *********-
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 5

Photo from the article A heist thriller about a group of women who commit an armed robbery after the deaths of their gangster husbands may at first seem an odd choice for Steve McQueen to follow up his Oscar-winning 12 Years A Slave (2013). And yet Widows (2018) is as stylistically and thematically complex as its predecessor. McQueen experiments with a typically male genre, taking the heist thriller past its canon of male (often white) criminals and presenting a tense story about the female experience within this violent environment.

Much of the marketing has focused on the star-studded cast: Viola Davis (Fences, How To Get Away With Murder) takes on the main role of Veronica Rawlings, whose husband, Harry (Liam Neeson), is killed after a botched robbery alongside several other members of his criminal enterprise. After being threatened by the man her husband had stolen from, Veronica uses Harry’s hidden plans for his next job and recruits the widows of the other men killed in the incident to assist with the heist. If there were two pre-established ideas before going into this film that I had, it was that Steve McQueen could direct - and Viola Davis could act. Collaboration between the two seemed destined for success, but my expectations were beyond surpassed with Davis’ performance. Our alignment with her is cemented by the authenticity of emotion Davis achieves, commanding every scene she is in with her on-screen presence, matching the fragility of Veronica with the necessary authority she presents to the other widows in order to ensure their co-operation.

There are strong supporting performances from the other ‘widows’ of the film: store-owner and mother Linda (Michelle Rodridguez) struggles between her moral attitude and the deception of their endeavour, Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) who turns to the escort business to support herself after her abusive husband’s death, and Belle (Cynthia Erivo) who is drafted into their ranks despite being the only woman who has not been widowed - although she is a single mother, and is not shown to be romantically involved with any person in the film, so is likewise unattached to a man. Erivo in particular shines as Belle, whose distance from the criminal underworld as well as her role as a mother, hairdresser and part-time babysitter, perhaps presents her as an impartial audience surrogate. She is given a choice to enter a world that she is not personally connected to in order to support herself and her child, and adapts to her new situation as the film progresses. This is the second feature film featuring Erivo to be released this year, the first being the recent Bad Times at the El Royale (Drew Goddard, 2018); from these two performances, which vary widely in character but are similar in genre (and in how much I enjoyed them), I would anticipate this year to be a break-out for Erivo as a star.

Although the majority of the male-billed cast die in the explosive opening sequence, the performances of Daniel Kaluuya as gangster Jatemme and Colin Farrell as corrupt politician Jack Mulligan are noteworthy. Kaluuya is a menacing presence in every frame he inhabits, epitomised by his intimidation tactic during the rapping scene where he steps into another man’s personal space, lingering close enough to make both the character and the audience uncomfortable with his intense eye contact and ambiguous expression. The use of a panning shot encircling this moment - literally trapping the figures in the cinematic space, unable to escape Jatemme’s looming presence as a character raps to an increasing uncomfortable pace - only adds to his on-screen threat. This happens very early on in the film, and sets the precedent for Jatemme’s character and outbursts of extreme violence. Throughout, it is the contrast of Jatemme’s indifferent attitude towards the unexpected but heightened moments of violence he commits that leaves the audience uneasy whenever he is in a scene, unable to pre-empt his decisions or decipher what exactly triggers the outbursts.

Widows operates primarily in the moments between these instances of violence. The film’s pace rockets from pulse-racing action sequences and scenes of heightened tension to solitary moments of reflection and grief by the female characters. Balancing the emotional depth of their struggle and the nature of the genre, during which violence seems inevitable and yet manages to be shocking every time, McQueen cuts between quiet emotion and drastic harm in a way that packs a punch, and causes a visceral audience reaction - whether to gasp in horror at the escalation of a standard police stop, the crack of a gun firing, or to cheer at the violent climax at the end of the film. There were so many moments I could talk about that had an impact on me during the viewing experience - but the most interesting shot to me remains a long take from the bonnet of a car as the Chicago landscape passes by. Keep an eye out for it.

This review was published on November 28, 2018.

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