By John Murphy
This was the first thing that struck me when watching Widows – the new film from Steve McQueen, and the first since his Oscar-winning 12 Years A Slave. I think we can agree that these are manifestly different films, but from the first frame it possessed that same visceral realism of his earlier work.
I felt the heat from an exploding truck; the desperation of a band of thieves heading to their inevitably violent end, intercut with vignettes of the lives they left behind. The importance of these vignettes becomes immediately obvious within a matter of seconds. We are given the full context of the relationships they had with the women they left behind: a heady mixture of tender lovers, abusers, and charlatans. McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn elect to show us the lives that each of these women have lost in order to portray that which they are fighting to get back, or perhaps how they may be reborn through their struggle.
Almost immediately the scene his been set. Both I and a packed house were drawn under the spell of this film. The success of the introduction is significant, as it is illustrative of the quality of screenwriting and editing throughout. There is absolutely no fat here – we are dealing exclusively with a prime cut of cinema in the vein of Heat, The French Connection and – in a more contemporary sense – The Town or Hell or High Water.
The winding and shifting narrative takes us to unexpected places in a genre which feels incredibly familiar. In doing so, we are treated to a gallery of great performances from a diverse cast whose characters feel three-dimensional, encouraging a real emotional investment from the audience. At the screening I attended, there were audible gasps, laughs, and screams. Even casual cinemagoers were locked into every twist and turn.
It is particularly difficult to highlight a specific standout performance here, so I’ve narrowed it down to seven: Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Liam Neeson, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Colin Farrell, and Robert Duvall (because I love him).
Joking aside, Widows is an affecting and exhilarating film because of the contribution of every moving part in this ensemble cast, as well as the cohesion of the writing, editing and direction throughout the film. It would be a disservice to your viewing experience for me to pontificate on larger ideas of feminism, class and racial division, and the haunting spectre of familial strife – these themes are yours to discover. You do not necessarily need to look for these big ideas if you do not want to – the film is perfectly effective as a straight heist thriller, if that is what you are looking for. Widows is so strong on its surface that its hidden depths just feel like another big score.