With excellent casting and near-impeccable form, Steve McQueen adapts the ITV drama Widows for film, offering a new and unexpected take on the classic heist genre
It’s fairly ubiquitous of the heist genre that something – rather everything – will always go wrong. There’s always an action-packed climax centred around the ‘big one’; that one last big score; the multi-million-billion-dollar vault robbery that we’ve seen our gruff, macho, anti-hero protagonists work towards over the course of ninety minutes. A classic offering, Michael Mann’s Heat, murders most of the players in a tremendous shootout, before giving Robert DeNiro’s criminal head honcho a more sympathetic death; recent films such as Baby Driver have tried to look beyond the balaclava to find the root causes of such grandiose crimes: political disenfranchisement, debts to the criminal underworld, or the simple need to put food on the table.
When we begin Widows, the fourth movie by acclaimed arthouse director Steve McQueen – the man who famously brought Michael Fassbender’s schlong to the screen – these conventions seem firmly grasped: four gruff, macho, anti-hero men are crammed into a transit van in the midst of an action-packed police chase, escaping a routine robbery with five-million dollars in the bag. They lose the blues and make the switch to a getaway car. Freedom beckons. But then characters and conventions are then torn to shreds: in a tremendous display of theatrical overkill, the men are turned into Swiss cheese by a waiting SWAT team, apparently tipped off to their final escape; the van then explodes, roasting them to death.
The next two hours are less of a traditional heist caper and more a dynamic, fascinating collection of character studies focusing on the loss of a partner. Intercut with the initial chase (a masterclass in film montage from editor Joe Walker) is a series of intimate, candid, pillow-talk moments shared between Viola Davis’ Veronica – a stand-out, Oscar-tipped performance – and her husband, Liam Neeson’s Harry, the man in charge of the heist. Veronica meanders through the first act like an emotionally drained shell, a sadness only strengthened by Harry’s fleeting haunts and invasive memories of their most personal moments. As it turns out these men were not just criminals on a destructive, money grabbing warpath – they were fathers, husbands, and sons.
Intertwined with this is a sub-plot focusing on the political skirmish between Colin Farrell’s no-nonsense Jack Mulligan, a clean-cut white politician whose family has dominated the local impoverished Chicago district for generations, and Bryan Tyree Henry’s menacing Jamal Manning, whose violent ambition is to interrupt the Mulligan hegemony. Here, McQueen utilises his signature voice to open a wider discourse on a variety of socio-political issues facing contemporary America such as the housing crisis, the ongoing intersections between race and class struggles and, in a particularly moving scene, police brutality. These political critiques never feel ham-fisted as they are consistently, and neatly, woven into the central heist narrative.
Eventually, the eponymous widows are forced to pick up the mantle left by Harry’s crew, and embark upon a heist of their own – and, what begins as a narrative of grief, becomes an empowering statement on women reclaiming autonomy from the oppression of men. Unfortunately, one final twist feels like a misplaced punchline to a joke that never really existed, slightly undermining the strength of McQueen’s wider feminist statement; and by the end of a fairly grandiose story, you can’t help but feel that everything breaks away too cleanly. Ultimately, while Widows feels just shy of the quality given by the rest of McQueen’s pristine filmography, it will still be a leading contender moving into awards season, and stands as a fantastic achievement in its own right.