I will try to keep spoilers to a minimum. But I loved this film so there will be much gushing.
Steve McQueen is easily the filmmaker I find must interesting artistically working today. Which isn’t to say I have always enjoyed his films – I used to describe as making wonderful films that I never wanted to watch again.
He is incredibly interested in the line between beauty and ugliness, and how often one can actually be the other, just looked at from a different angle. Which is why I found Shame the hardest of his films to watch – Hunger and 12 Years a Slave both show greater intensity of human suffering, and their protagonists go through the most gruelling experiences (mentally and physically) one can imagine. But slavery IS ugly – a human being purposefully starving himself to death IS ugly – sex shouldn’t be.
Shame took a human experience that should be joyful and pleasurable and a reminder of all the best parts of being alive in a physical body…and showed how it can be turned into nothing less than torture.
In any case, Widows isn’t anywhere as near as brutal a watch, but that shouldn’t be taken as a sign that is a less impressive achievement. And his fascination with that line has not gone away – it shows in how he frames his images, how he constructs his scenes, how the characters interact.
It is that rare thing – a heist movie where, despite being well-executed, clever and twisty, the heist is honestly the least interesting thing in the film.
Widows does something that not many films I can think of have been able to do – in fact I thought about the Wire a number of times while watching it – which is that it made Chicago feel like a real, lived-in place, full of jagged, ugly political compromises. The possible construction of a subway line is a crucial plot point, and one of the things McQueen does (that so many filmmakers never do) is focus on how people GET to places – there are constant scenes of conversations in cars or on subways, characters running for the bus or considering getting a cab.
McQueen has also become a great actors director. From what I have heard Fassbender and Cunningham to an extent directed themselves in Hunger, but there are some great performances in this film. Daniel Kaluuya is terrifying, no other word for it, and I have never seen Colin Farrell perform so well while having to do an accent. He is unnerving good at ‘playing’ a politician – all politicians have to be two-faced to at least some extent, but the worrying aspect of Farrell’s performance is that he doesn’t SEEM to be giving one. There are no give-always of insincerity, even when we KNOW he is being completely insincere.
Viola Davis is so good she doesn’t need praise, but her fellow widows also get chances to shine. Elizabeth Debicki has a moving transition from a victim to her own woman (and whoever suggested her as a possible casting for Diana in the Criwn was on the money) and I feel like this is the first time in years Michelle Rodriguez has been given the opportunity to do some proper acting. Cynthia Erivo is brand new (to me) but she more than holds her own. (I will say, this is an improbably beautiful group of women, but whatever).
The story is based on a 1980s Lynda la Plante BBC television series, but has been transplanted to an American setting, but in a way that genuinely works (unlike House of Cards). McQueen uses the new location and all its associated racial and historical baggage to just…break your heart at the emotional climax.