Directors: Steve McQueen
Cinematography: Sean Bobbit
Writers: Gillian Flynn (screenplay), Steve McQueen (Screenplay), Lynda La Plante (Novel)
Editors: Joe Walker
Stars: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Liam Neeson, Daniel Kaluuya, Brian Tyree Henry, Collin Farrell
“Widows” showed me the light. Genre films don’t have to be conventional to work. The characters don’t need familiar archetypes to feel realistic. Widows basically throw it all out the window and what’s left is a pulse-pounding, hyper-vigilant, an astonishing work of art that truly transcends the genre. “Widows” is a heist film working on higher levels than what came before it.
Let’s start with the characters: an extremely diverse ensemble of actors and characters that fit so well in this world and are so evenly fleshed out, that despite an overwhelming amount of necessary character development, the film ends with the audience having a great understanding of each one. That’s a brilliant achievement for Flynn and McQueen with the writing. It’s also completely unique in its story structure and approach, using inexperienced widows, with nothing left, to pull off something that is seemingly insurmountable. And that feeling of compounding stress is built through their grief, hopelessness, and ultimately, the pressure of the job.
It’s all set off by Viola Davis (Veronica), who was absolutely the right choice for this leading role. In fact, anyone else here would’ve done this role injustice. She brings the entire film together in more ways than one and needs to be looked like one of the best sheer performance of the year. But the power of Widows is the ensemble: Michelle Rodriguez (Linda) brings fire and sensibility to the film as Elizabeth Debicki (Alice) finds this inner-drive and desire. On top of that, Daniel Kaluuya (Jatemme Manning) delivers the most intense performance of the year. The list goes on and on…
For Viola Davis, her brilliance is so well known that we often times overlook it because it’s expected. In “Widows”, she reaches an entirely new level. Her range in this character is unheard of, as she constantly rotates through shock, immense grief, power, and leadership. She also plays off every actor so organically, helps make ever character interaction that much more potent. She is the backbone, but again, with every character getting so much respect from the screenplay, the film doesn’t rely on any one performance.
Now to Steve McQueen’s direction of the film and his ability to bring in the best in the industry. Gillian Flynn co-wrote the screenplay, Hans Zimmer added the unnerving, powerful score, the incredibly talented ensemble, and his ability to bring it all together. It’s all top-notch professionals bringing at the highest level. McQueen not only nails the thriller aspect of the screenplay, but he perfects the political side of the story not letting it drag the main storyline. He hides and shrouds the film in an indecipherable twist that isn’t a huge departure from the tone of the film. And ultimately, no scene in the film is wasted. Every moment is supplying you with visual and story ammunition.
Start with McQueen’s command of any given scene: the basketball court with the spinning Sean Bobbit cinematography or Brian Tyree Henry (Jamel Manning) breaking into Veronica’s apartment. Both scenes begin innocently, no serious information is given early on, but slowly, the tension builds without the tone or intensity of those scenes picking up in any way. Once that tension reaches a boiling point, the scene changes – Kaluuya suddenly gets in the rapping man’s face or Jamel Manning with the dog by the neck. Both scenes have dramatic finishes, but are unbelievably constructed and earned to get to that point of contention and emotion. Throughout “Widows,” this is how the story operates.
An underrated aspect of a film firing on all cylinders creatively is Joe Walker’s editing. The flashback sequences are done so well intermittently working in Liam Neeson (Harry Rawlings) and keeping the audience on edge through the cutting. It helps when each frame, shot, and sequence is brimming with details, gorgeously dark aesthetics, and fantastic writing but the editing doesn’t allow the film to linger on any specific point. It doesn’t feel like a two-hour movie despite the fact the story is so huge. Credit Walker and the writing for being able to accurately cover the entire story in that time frame.
Even despite mentioning so many good actors, I missed Cynthia Erivo (Baella) in a smaller yet effective role, Collin Farrell and Robert Duvall as the (appropriately) disconnected Mulligan family with a political stranglehold on parts of Chicago. Even these side characters are completely fleshed out, and play a major role in the outcome. I often times came away amazed by all the story fit into subtle details and design. It’s fantastic filmmaking.
And McQueen, again, working on an intellectually higher level than most was able to achieve a style in a genre that is seemingly always lacking specific style or feeling that comes from “Widows” and its characters. Obviously, the character archetypes are original, but it’s the subtleties that separate these story arcs from the rest. It’s about empowerment but shown in a completely realistic light. It not only actively discusses the role of women here but celebrates their struggle by not holding back.
It’s hard to find a film as well made as “Widows.” The sheer intensity and stakes of this picture are hard to cope, and again, bear down on you throughout the experience. It’s every aspect of the production working at a world-class level and each creative decision succeeds.