The first thing I saw by Steve McQueen was Deadpan, the short film that was part of his Turner Prize winning exhibition in 1999. In it McQueen himself stands in front of a dilapidated shack, the facade of which falls down onto him although he remains unharmed due to the precise positioning of an empty window frame from that passes around him as the rest crashes to the ground. The shot is then repeated from numerous camera angles. The piece was a direct reference to Steamboat Bill Jnr, the 1928 Buster Keaton film that stages the same stunt. It was clear then that here was an artist that knew cinema.
From the beginning of his career as a movie director, starting with Hunger in 2008, McQueen has used both his aesthetic and his filmic eye to give us films that are original and artistic in their approach. Both Hunger and 2011’s Shame presented themselves as dramas but beyond that defied any easy classification, especially the latter that was an enthralling depiction of sex addiction that felt a lot more like a profound contemplative experience than a night out at the flicks. Twelve Years a Slave, his Oscar winner from 2013, felt a little more like a standard film, which is to take nothing away from this powerful movie about slavery and repression but it was a little more conventional than his previous filmography. Now with Widows McQueen has made a film that is a proper genre piece but just as with Deadpan two decades ago, he has shown that conforming to pre-existing cinematic conventions does not mean he has had to compromise his artistry or vision in any way.
Widows is demonstrably a crime thriller. In fact it is adapted from a six part Lynda La Plante television show that aired on ITV on Wednesday nights starting in March 1983. As with the source material the set up sees a group of career criminals killed in a botched heist leaving their wives to complete the job they’d next planned so as to pay off some local mobsters. That premise in someone else’s hands would fit right in with the current wave of feminist flicks putting glamorous women in the places generally occupied by men. It could have been an all girls together yarn showing how they can stick it to the man, something akin to Ocean’s 8 meets 9 to 5. That is not McQueen’s jam though. (To be fair it wasn’t La Plante’s either.) Widows is certainly a consciously feminist film but in a less contrived more credible way. It is more concerned with the complexity of human experience than it is with the complexity of the crime and the fact that it examines a specifically female experience is more about context than concept. It focuses on emotion and frustration just as much as Shame while still subtly ticking a number of the genre boxes.
The filming and framing is superb too. There is one significant conversation that takes place between a couple of the supporting players; a politician and his wife, where the woman justifiably scolds him in a commanding and empowered way despite being silent and amenable toward him at every other point in the film. The dialogue takes place inside a moving car but at no point do we see inside the vehicle, only hearing the words instead. In that short scene we learn everything we need to know about the difference between the woman that people see and the one that literally exists behind closed doors, while also getting a very different perspective on the man in question too. It isn’t about the moment that plays out on screen, it is about every moment in those two people’s lives that doesn’t. This is just one example of how the director paints his portraits with the camera rather than pointing the lens and clicking a button. If a picture says a thousand words then McQueen shows that the angle and simple composition of a shot can say a thousand more. It isn’t as contrived as mise en scène, it is something else entirely.
It isn’t just in these smaller scenes that McQueen excels though, his action sequences are masterly too. The precredits scene which features some draw dropping chases and explosions is just blistering. Can someone give this guy the next Bond movie please.
McQueen’s cast are all excellent too. Some of the central women get more depth and more to do than others but even Michelle Rodriguez and Carrie Coon, who figure less, get their moments of telling characterisation. Only Cynthia Erivo feels underserved. Elizabeth Debicki stands out showing strength in times of weakness but the film undoubtedly belongs to its lead Viola Davis.
Davis’ performance is like watching a pressure cooker loaded with tears and fortitude. She doesn’t just hold your attention whenever she is on screen, she clenches it along with the emotion she clenches inside and you just cannot disconnect. It is also worth mentioning how rare it is to see a fifty three year old black woman taking the lead in a film of this type, or any film come to that. Pam Grier was forty eight when she ‘came out of retirement, to take the lead in Jackie Brown and by the time they were Davis’ age Angela Bassett was playing fourth fiddle to Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart and Morgan Freeman in Olympus Has Fallen and Whoopi Goldberg had pretty much stopped appearing in theatrical releases altogether. It isn’t just black women either, having clocked up five decades Julia Roberts is now playing mostly Mum roles and Marisa Tomei is Spider-Man’s Aunt May. What is great here is that just like her gender, Viola Davis age and her ethnicity are a part of the character but they are not all of the character.
Widows is one of those films that the more I think about it the more I think it should be celebrated. It is a magnificently directed movie with a strong story and outstanding performances. It is violent but not overbearingly so and it has one of the simplest and surprisingly one of the sweetest endings of any film I’ve seen this year where seeing someone smile for the first time promises redemption and to some extent reframes everything you’ve seen up until that point. This is a mainstream film and a work of art but is neither to the cost of the other.