WIDOWS: Steve McQueen Surveys Modern Chicago

As far as left turns go Steve McQueen’s Widows is fairly considerable.

Although the screenwriter and director garnered international acclaim for motion pictures such as Hunger, Shame and 12 Years a Slave he had been working in the arts for fifteen years prior to this. McQueen’s background had always been in the arts, working as a celebrate visual artist for years before taking the step to direct his first feature in 2008, Shame. That first film was acclaimed for taking an unflinching look at the 1981 Irish hunger strike and garnered McQueen his first award in the shape of the Camera d’Or, the first British director to do so. No digital marketing agency could have done a better job than this in raising the director’s profile.

This kick-started the director’s film career and led to the successful financing and production of the aforementioned titles. Although his first films are certainly impressive works, their subject matter is of such grave import that they can hardly be seen as ‘entertainment’ in the broad sense of the word. With Widows, McQueen makes ‘entertainment’ his primary ambition, whilst still making some important social commentary – a feat that should have by-the-books genre directors simultaneously looking over their shoulders and taking notes.

Jennifer Lawrence was initially eyed for the lead role, but had to decline due to scheduling conflicts, although this will have no doubt effected the film’s bottom line (as of writing the $42m production has made just over $19.5m after its opening weekend in the US), casting Viola Davis in any motion picture is, and always will be, a good sign. Davis plays Veronica Rawlings, the wife of a career criminal who is left widowed and owing millions of dollars to a crime boss (Brian Tyree Henry) who has plans to work his way into local government. All Veronica has to help her is her husband’s driver, three other threatened women, a notebook full of heist plans…and an adorable dog. Davis’ performance is another masterclass in stoicism, her co-conspirators even comment on her ‘bitch face’, but through a series of well-handled flashbacks featuring a restrained Liam Neeson, we get to understand why Veronica is this way.

McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects) offer this same lucidity to pretty much the entire ensemble cast of Widows, offering us real insights into the motivations behind their dubious moral actions. Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall clash as a land surveyor turned politician and his domineering Father, although these characters are initially set up as antagonists to our heroines, their relationship humanises them and paints them in shades of moral greys – something that a conventional thriller of this ilk would not usually care to do. The fact that McQueen and co. manage to cram in so much meaty character development, as well as tell a thrilling heist story that subverts expectations, should send a clear signal to Hollywood that genre exercises can be more than just the sum of their parts.

We’ll have to wait to see if McQueen chooses to continue this journey into commercial cinema, but Widows certainly makes for a promising start.