Widows movie review: Steve McQueen brings Dark Knight darkness to Oceans-style heist film
Director - Steve McQueen
Cast - Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Bryan Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson, Jon Bernthal
Rating - 4/5
Oscar-winning British director Steve McQueen continues his streak of exposing American atrocities with his feature films. Widows, his follow-up to his 2013 Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave, is a nail-biting thriller whose social commentary is often more engaging than its heists.
Working off a script that he has co-written with Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects), McQueen weaves an intricate thriller that feels like it has been made by a first-time director. I say this not as a criticism - Widows is anything but amateurishly made - but more for the passion with which McQueen makes his points. It’s as if he fears losing the opportunity to make another movie, and therefore, is convinced that he must pour everything he has into this one.
Watch the Widows trailer here
Widows begins with an excellent sequence that wordlessly explains everything we need to know about its gritty depiction of Chicago and the socially and racially diverse group of characters that populates it. A crew of robbers, led by Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson in an extended cameo), is killed after a botched job, leaving his widow (Viola Davis), like so many women before her, forced to clean up her man’s mess.
Up to her neck in debt, Veronica Rawlings assembles a new squad, made up of all the widows of the ill-fated members of Harry’s team, and puts into motion. It’s a silly idea, but McQueen lassoes it with his own unique sensibilities. He doesn’t let the inherent goofiness of the premise take away from the very real issues he wants to tackle with his film, which leans more towards the gritty melodrama of Heat than the vacuous emptiness of Ocean’s 8.
The gang violence in Chicago is so notorious that several reports suggest more Americans have been killed there than in wartime Iraq and Afghanistan. This poor reputation has inspired the unfortunate nickname Chiraq, which was made more popular by a Kanye West lyric and a Spike Lee joint.
Acclaimed documentarian Steve James even made a film about this in 2011, called The Interrupters. It was about a group of Chicagoans who - being survivors of gang violence themselves - literally interrupt street warfare, to steer young men and women away from this (self) destructive path.
From police violence and corruption to dynasty politics and modern America’s racial tensions, McQueen finds a way to make it all accessible. Widows is powerfully acted, tightly constructed, and in one scene in particular, frighteningly topical. Viola Davis has a tendency to go overboard with her performances, and there are moments in Widows in which her famous snot makes an appearance, but no one can deny her immense screen presence, especially when she’s working with an ensemble. She exudes Denzel Washington-level charisma in the role.
Harry had the bright idea of stealing from the mob, one of the many elements that connects Widows to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which, despite being set in the fictional Gotham City, is perhaps one of the best Chicago crime movies ever made. Colin Farrell’s accent here will remind you of Heath Ledger’s from that classic, as will the many filming locations and Sean Bobbitt’s meticulous cinematography.
But perhaps the most prominent connective tissue between both films is Hans Zimmer’s lean, industrial, and (ironically) very masculine score. While his work in The Dark Knight trilogy was lush and expansive - keeping with his general reputation as Hollywood’s go-to composer for epic themes - he has written only about 30 minutes of music for Widows, which is about what McQueen usually uses in his films. For about an hour, the movie plays almost silently, relying on mood and dialogue more than anything else, but as it hurtles towards its propulsive conclusion, it builds into a what can only be described as noisy clanging - metallic, jarring, perfect.
There is little warmth to this story, but this is true for most of McQueen’s films. They’re about people struggling to escape their environments; they’re about cruelty and betrayal and unfair twists of faith. But they’re also about redemption. Widows may appear to be dressed for a funeral, but peel back the layers and more shall be revealed.