Mourning Glory

Review: Widows delivers an effective, grief-stricken social drama with thrills

Director    Steve McQueen
Written By    Gillian Flynn, Steve McQueen
Starring    Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson
Release    16 NOV (US) 6 NOV (UK)    Certificate 15
Review: Widows delivers an effective, grief-stricken social drama with thrills Movie Review


Grade A-

Matt Looker

16th October 2018

Steve McQueen’s dramatically weighty take on the heist movie genre starts with a blistering opening scene. We see masked robbers fleeing their crime mid-pursuit, but only from inside the back of their getaway van. With a fixed position looking out through the transit’s rear, its broken doors scraping and sparking on the road as police cars and traffic crash and pile-up in the trail of the gang’s escape, we cut to each of the members in moments of domesticity from earlier that day - Liam Neeson passionately kissing Viola Davis in bed, Jon Bernthal prodding at the black eye adorning Elizabeth Debicki’s face, kisses goodbye, arguments in stores - until finally a chaotic shootout leaves the gang and their van exploded in flames. McQueen’s intent is clear: from the physical chaos on the roads to the emotional distress at home, these robbers are leaving a lot of devastation in their wake.

The dangerous consequences of their life of crime comes back to haunt Viola Davis’ Veronica, now a widow to a Liam Neeson-sized casket. It seems his last job was to rip off $2 million from criminal Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who was using the money for a political campaign to run against the corrupt shoo-in option, Colin Farrell’s Jack Mulligan. With Veronica threatened by Manning to repay the money, she turns to Neeson’s notebook for details on another potential heist worth $5 million, and she just needs some other like-minded ladies to help her take on the job with grit and determination. So, as the gang assembles, these widows discover that they can work through their grief as long as there is a substantial will. Heh.

As far as heist movie set-ups go, this is a particularly compelling one, with us following first-time amateurs rather than the typical clichéd expert thieves doing what they do best. But McQueen isn’t even really interested in Widows being a heist movie. All the expected tropes are eschewed here: there are no pickpocketed key cards, tech guys or lengthy montages in which the gang conduct practice runs in an empty warehouse against the clock. Instead, the film focuses on the characters, the women who find themselves pushed to even attempt a high-profile burglary. As an audience, we’re not even privy to any of the details of the plan, because the plan isn’t important. What’s important are the stakes, and the drama that unfolds.

Also important: Neeson’s sloppy french-kissing technique.

As expected, Davis gets most of the character heft to carry through the film, shaking with quiet rage and grief beneath a resolutely fierce exterior. And while Robert Duvall adds old-school class as the tyrannical former figurehead, and Daniel Kaluuya terrifies as an unpredictable and indifferent thug, it is Debicki who picks up the other most compelling storyline in the film. As Alice, she suffers mixed feelings about losing her abusive, thieving other half, and finds herself having to make a choice between a foray into major crime and embarking on yet another demeaning relationship. In choosing to become actively involved in the heist prep-work, Alice slowly regains control over her own choices and starts to develop the same determination and resolution that Veronica was clearly born with. It’s the most satisfying character arc to watch in a film where everyone else is motivated purely by money or self-preservation.

Not that this is detrimental to the film though. Motivations may be simple, but they exist within a variety of complex social circumstances, which is where the film’s emphasis lies. There are battles of power, race and wealth all being played out from background to foreground and, just as it does with the two big robbery sequences in the film, money fuels everything. McQueen really explores these points at every opportunity too. During one long take, another fixed camera position on a car bonnet shows the entire journey from a poor part of Chicago’s 18th Ward where Colin Farrell’s Mulligan has been pledging jobs, all the way to his home, where the camera then swivels to reveal his own impressive house.

Not to mention he has a fucking yacht, because all rich douchebags do.

It’s touches like these that add extra nuance to what could easily have been a drama focused on power and violence alone. The same goes for the constant tinge of tragedy that runs throughout as flashbacks and daydreams bearing reflections of the grief and regret that surround these events inform the film as much as the title demands that they should. After all, the word ‘widow’ itself is loaded with emotion, and so McQueen imbues his movie to the same effect.

With the director combining awards-worthy performances with astonishing action sequences, levelling artistry with commercial viability, McQueen has shown that he can - and that he is willing to - turn his hand to interesting new territory. So, while his attention-grabbing opening sequence was concerned with looking back, it’s also hard not to be excited about what lies ahead.

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