Widows: why Steve McQueen's slick thriller is an art-pop triumph

The artist-turned-director makes a move to the mainstream with a star-studded heist thriller yet smartly embeds it with deft social commentary

After the solemn one-two-three punch of Hunger, Shame and 12 Years a Slave – a trilogy in which sex addiction practically counts as the thematic light relief – you’d have put Steve McQueen pretty low down on the list of film-makers most likely to make something that could reasonably be described as a “romp”. McQueen’s fine-art credentials and stern worldview certainly didn’t make him an obvious candidate on paper for a big-screen remake of Widows, Lynda La Plante’s high-trash ITV miniseries from the biggest-haired depths of the 1980s.

Having Gillian Flynn, creator of the sleek revenge corkscrew Gone Girl, on board as co-screenwriter made perfect sense for a woman-powered heist movie. She duly ramps up La Plante’s material with suitably American snap and swagger; the dialogue is crisp and diamond-hard, awash with retorts and epithets you’d never be coolly tough enough to say in the moment. McQueen’s films, meanwhile, have until now been taciturn, often violently hushed affairs: he’s made a signature of the slow-held set-piece shot, lingering over images of physical stress, suffering or simply Carey Mulligan extending each syllable of New York, New York into a separate aria. You’d never have guessed he had much interest in shooting a car chase.

As it turns out, he shoots the hell out of one – several, in fact – in Widows, and the film is indeed a romp, albeit one of a notably severe, unsmiling persuasion. At a time when the snooty term “elevated genre” has become all too prevalent in critical discourse, McQueen doesn’t strain to elevate or embellish the stone-cold thriller he has to work with; rather, he lets it play at a straightforward human level, showing up the plasticised artifice of the multiplex entertainments it’s being programmed against. Adult-oriented genre films of equivalent smarts and savvy to Widows were once a Hollywood staple; today, many critics are speaking of McQueen’s film as a rare art-pop hybrid.

That’s not entirely off-base: amid its crackling action play and radiant movie-star posturing, Widows is still recognisably the work of the man who won the Turner prize well before he scooped an Oscar. He may pull off those car chases with rattling aplomb, yet the film’s most breathtaking shot is less obviously automobile-fixated, and pure McQueen: as Colin Farrell’s venal Chicago politician is chauffeured from a campaign stop in a deprived South Side project to his plush, leafy suburban HQ, the camera remains poised on the car’s bonnet, eavesdropping on the conversation inside while gazing, in a calm, unbroken take, at the drastic shifts in class, colour and property value from one block to the next. The real-time shot lasts two minutes: an eternity in film time but a startlingly short drive, making a scorching point about wealth disparity and racial division in contemporary America with nary a word to that effect in the script.

Flourishes like these keep Widows’ most high-flown plotting mechanics rooted in a real, recognisable world, as does its rich, multiracial ensemble – headed, of course, by Viola Davis in her first all-out studio-movie lead. At a time when too many “strong female characters” are defined purely by their strength at the expense of flaws or nuances, her Veronica Rawlings is a heroine riven with moral conflict and political complication: a vastly wealthy black woman whose fortune was gained, unwittingly, by illicit white means, she’s regarded with scepticism or outright hostility by those above and below her, black and white. (When Davis finally shares a scene with Cynthia Erivo, as a street-smart black striver from the opposite end of the social ladder, a silent thesis is written in their clashing body language.)

Daniel Kaluuya and Brian Tyree Henry in Widows
Daniel Kaluuya and Brian Tyree Henry in Widows. Photograph: Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth/AP

Throughout, these complexities feel subtextual, rarely written explicitly into proceedings but imported by canny casting, deft performance detailing and the loaded gaze of McQueen’s camera. It would be obtuse to call Widows a colour-blind exercise – it bristles with awareness of racial and economic difference, pointedly recalibrating the stakes of La Plante’s lily-white original. Yet it also doesn’t feel quite right to call Widows, for all that busy bristle, an expressly political film. In the final event, as a tangled, heavily populated set-up gives way to the beat-by-beat execution of a fabulously far-fetched heist, McQueen embraces the ITV-souled crackerjack silliness of the whole enterprise – the accelerator is pressed, shots are fired, and it all wraps up in tidy time.

Those intriguing lines of socio-economic inquiry left deliberately, raggedly unresolved as Rawlings and her cohorts – and McQueen too – get on with what needs to be done. America’s problems, after all, are bigger than anything they, or the film they’re in, can solve. That Widows finally settles for being “just” a heist movie is no shame, and no slight: it carries its genre credentials with a steely, straight-backed resolve worthy of Viola Davis itself. But genre escapism needn’t be shorn of real-world context or curiosity: the unlikely meeting of minds between Steve McQueen, Gillian Flynn and Lynda La Plante has resulted in a strikingly intersectional work of mainstream cinema, where questions of social injustice and representation aren’t pushed into the background, but granted the anxious, hovering ever-presence they exert in all facets of daily life in 2018 America. Turns out the director of 12 Years a Slave can make a romp – but there’s broken glass beneath its bounding.

  • Widows is out now in the UK and in the US on 16 November


Guy Lodge

The GuardianTramp

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