It goes without saying that Widows is more of a crackerjack offering than we’re used to from director Steve McQueen, who typically specializes in the soul-rotting malaise of a cold-blooded world and/or the existential disfigurement of an abandoned person barely surviving in it. But Widows still bears McQueen’s ruthlessly stark, almost psychotically perfect formalist streak. There’s a little more wiggle-room in the style – more drive, more chaos, more flippancy, more immediacy, maybe even more of a desire to please – but it’s still a Steve McQueen film. Which means, although its gears run faster and it’s more soul-shredding than soul-rotting, it’s still all cold muscle, coiled nerves, and ready-to-pounce fury.
My mixed metaphors above – mechanical to organic, automotive to leonine – sound off, but the film validates them – and, more importantly, itself – within a minute of its run-time, an old-fashioned “here is some cinema for you” gesture that sets the film absolutely running. I don’t want to spoil it, but it involves an immediate, mesmerizing, and rather brutal cut from sexual animalism to full-throttle pedal-to-the-medal instability that comes out of nowhere and carries us forward for more than two hours.
It also indicates, perhaps a little overtly, that the film really wants to let us know that it means business, that it is first and foremost out to Cinema us with a very capital C. Widows is positively overstuffed with masterful gestures of that sort, both big and small, perhaps to the point of self-congratulation. Within half an hour, there’s a spellbinding circular tracking shot and, as if to top itself yet again, an astonishing several-minute tracking shot as a car hastily skedaddles from a working-class, African-American community into a predominantly white, upper-middle-class neighborhood, the film quietly but pointedly underlining via its formalism the inescapable (but, in America, typically very easily forgotten) fact that such stark wealth disparity can be visualized within a roughly two-minute tracking shot without cutting. Widows is almost definitively the most sharply crafted Hollywood film of 2018, but it is also no less definitively aware of that fact, and that realization is not always to its benefit.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Widows isn’t content to polish a coal-black thriller for us; the aforementioned tracking shot already displays its desire to rip open the tendons of Chicago’s brutal political gamesmanship, to diagnose the city’s racial disparity (while implicitly centering around a nervy display of racial camaraderie), and to explore the cutthroat callousness of men (who uniformly either actively threaten the women at the center of the film or pretend to help them only to leave the women hung out to dry when the men fail to consider how their nebulous morality affects others). So it’s not just hot-iron cinema; there is, at least the film thinks, a lot of meat on these bones. And these dueling impulses – sleek, laser-focused, throat-clenching thrills and more horizontally exploratory attempts to envelop and contemplate an entire city’s (and nation’s) social pulse – sometimes coalesce elegantly, enlivening each other through contradictory friction.
At other times, however, they leech energy from each other, evoking the film’s over-generous opinion of itself (its belief that it can tackle all these threads effectively) more than its ability to actually merge its at-times disparate strands. The plot description is both testaments to the film’s gall and its hubris. When Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his band of professional thieves are messily killed in a con gone bad, his wife Veronica (Viola Davis) is left owing two million (the money Harry stole, and which burned up in the botched heist) to Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), an African-American gangster currently seeking to legitimize his career by running for city alderman against frontrunner Jack (Colin Farrell), whose father Tom (Robert Duvall) is a previous councilman, unabashed racist, and all-around neglectful and over-weening father figure of Irish descent. With Jamal’s brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) enforcing the front-end of Jamal’s more physical altercations, Veronica asks the other three widows of the initial heist, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and Amanda (Carrie Coon), each of whom are strapped for cash no less than Veronica, to stage Harry’s next planned heist in hopes of paying off Jamal and providing for each of the women to escape their various and no less punishing personal circumstances. When Amanda disinclines to join, Linda’s sometimes-nanny Belle (Cynthia Erivo) handles fourth wheel.
That’s a mouthful, and McQueen, along with Sean Bobbitt’s graceful, serpentine cinematography and phenomenal editor Joe Walker’s crisp, acidic cutting, desperately wrangle these competing and overlapping strands into a narrative that tries, often against itself, to stretch out as it’s tightening up. Partially, this is a tonal conundrum. Loosely adapted from a mid-‘80s British mini-series, the film struggles to merge (or play off one another) writer Gillian Flynn’s peppy, pulpy, self-consciously lively writing style and McQueen’s hyper-conscious moratoria of imagery. Although he’s certainly snappier here than usual, his natural visual inclinations still take the film definitively in the direction of the tortured and the distraught, toward an image of people not as live-wire accelerants and conscious tricksters but icon figures painstakingly and gruesomely arranged in preconfigured tableaux of suffering. His style is heavy, in other words, and the screenplay aspires to lithe lightness.
That’s not a critique of McQueen by any means – 12 Years a Slave remains one of the decade’s defining films, but its texture is unerringly torpid, as are those of McQueen’s earlier films. His prior works are deeply methodical in their excavation of soul-deep enervation and alienation, pursuing these themes through harshly-sculpted images and heavily-freighted compositions which suffocate and exsanguinate characters rather than provide the kind of unstable ground necessary for personal action. Thus, complaints about 12 Years a Slave – that protagonist Solomon Northrup is but a witness to an unerring display of punishment – bear a clear connection to the debates around Ta-Nehisi Coates’ fiction, namely that both share an emphasis not on the empirical and/or material fluctuations of lived society that allow for resistance to those flows but, instead, on static, overbearing weight which seems to transplant the characters out of the flow of time and into an almost ahistorical, allegorical realm where they serve only as witnesses to oppression.
12 Years a Slave is also clearly aware of this issue. In at least one scene, it actually critiques its protagonist for assuming that a more overtly heroic and masculinely active form of resistance would be possible, the film exploring instead notions of surreptitious disobedience and deceit which incline toward the concealed, masked, and disguised, notions of resistance which problematize any clear agency/structure binary (and notions of resistance which, the film suggests, are more feminine). McQueen does depict a kind of personal resistance to conditions in his films, albeit the one best described as survival. Still, though, McQueen’s usual style, above all, is predominantly structuralist, which is to say that it is inclined to tease out the ambiguities, instabilities, overflows, and ruptures in structures of oppression with an accent definitively on oppression rather than the people who work against it. He is less drawn to the kinds of fluid, heterogeneous cons, masks, and games of Widows’ hyper-modernist world where identities and social roles are so mutable, unsettled, and destabilized that they can be negotiated, navigated and mobilized by figures such as this film’s protagonists to provide a kind of pocket of freedom. Or at least, to ride and warp the dark underside of freedom’s absence to reach some cruel compromise with it. (It bears mentioning, of course, that film noir – which Widows is heavily indebted to – is the original modernist genre, and the tragic vision of success in Widows is highly influenced by noir).
There is, of course, a link to the women of Widows and the women in 12 Years a Slave, both of whom, as it were, know how to play the game, know how to, in other words, use the master’s tools against the master. But while 12 Years’ attitude toward this is decidedly skeptical, defeatist, and even fatalistic, suggesting that it may not truly amount to resistance per-se, Widows tries to accent both agency and structure in a comic and sometimes misshapen interplay of contradictions. It asks us to leer at the machinations of social oppression one minute and to revel in the social ingenuity of the marginalized in the next. And, indeed, to cheer for this ingenuity.
In other words, whatever the merits or detriments of Slave’s understanding of resistance, temporality, and causality, it does not square at all with Widows’ noirish thrills and emphasis on heroic, life-affirming actions on the outskirts of society. Hardened though it can be, Widows is ultimately a brash, vicious little slug of a movie, a potboiler which, while not necessarily optimistic about the state of the world, does clearly enjoy the fact that these women are taking their personal lives into their own hands, and it asks us to cheer with them in a cruelly ironic, semi-nihilistic sense. At times, the film’s contradictory texture comes undone, its reaches toward a more full-throated analysis of social class, race, and gender not so much surreptitiously threaded into the minutiae of the thriller as competing for air-time, sometimes even actively deflating the incendiary spirit of the film. (For instance, the film doubles a pair of deaths near the end, and the implications of those deaths for the political landscape of Chicago, in ways which the film clearly supposes have been thought-through, but they seem more loosely associative, even gimmicky, than genuinely critical).
(Incidentally, this is the same tone that Flynn’s previous screenplay Gone Girl adopted toward its characters’ mutable and quintessentially modernist identity-games, and it suddenly strikes me that Widows has much the same mismatch between comparatively frigid director and vaguely flippant screenplay as Gone Girl did, although McQueen’s film is better to my tastes).
Widows is a nasty film, then, but also unambiguously big-screen entertainment, loaded with conspiratorial twists, brazen imagery, and supremely textured performances (the best of which, to my mind, are Davis, who wears an astonishing death mask throughout) and Debicki, who is the most humane of the performers). Ultimately, then, McQueen’s viciously formalist orientation toward choking his characters under the weight of his cinema, cloistering them away in an aesthetic oblivion that mirrors their existential (and often physical) plights, isn’t a natural fit for this material. At times (as in the opening and closing heists and the car-ride tracking shot), it yields terrifically unexpected dividends out of the frictive pull of working-class, marginalized get-up-and-go. But, as in the rather dubious circular tracking shot of Daniel Kaluuya (in general, the film doesn’t know what to do with his fantastically menacing performance) forcing two of his underlings to rap for him under malevolent circumstances, it feels vacant, McQueen’s style mobilized not to subject his characters to the world or to animate their personal renewal within that world but to simply effuse visual skill. Cinematic showmanship becomes calcified into cinematic show-boating.