It’s been five years since the release of director Steve McQueen’s slave trade epic 12 Years a Slave, and now he is back to explore racial divide again in heist thriller Widows. Co-written with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, the story is based on Lynda La Plante’s 1980s crime series but has been shipped from London to modern day America for this adaptation. When an armed robbery goes terribly wrong, Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) are left with no spouses and a lot of problems. They’re indebted to corrupt politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who is embroiled in a dirty campaign against mayor Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) to be alderman of a Chicago district. However, as Veronica lays her hands on her late husband’s notes for an upcoming job, she hatches an ambitious plan to settle the arrears.
There are a lot of moving parts to the busy narrative, and while the trio of scorned protagonists are at the epicentre of the piece, there’s a lot of interesting subtext at play. Collaborating again with his usual cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, the camera is utilised by the skilled filmmaker as a tool to illustrate the stark gulf in the classes, showing both the privilege and the poverty of the Windy City. In a visually impressive trademark long take, we witness the simultaneous sophistication and squalor of the South Side as Mulligan is driven from a dishevelled project to the picket fenced tree lined streets of affluence in a matter of minutes.
McQueen’s weighty political themes are grounded in reality, whereas Flynn’s script has a sense of Hollywood headiness that riffs off far-fetched movies of the same ilk. The mix of their contrasting methodologies shouldn’t really work, but Hans Zimmer’s typically booming score helps in pulling the elements together to establish a consistent tone. As the plot thickens, the intricate twists and shifts are complex without being convoluted, slowly building towards an intense and exciting final act.
With so many characters involved, the cast is very much an ensemble affair. Davis, Rodriguez and Debicki give visceral performances as their downtrodden alter egos form an unlikely alliance. Battling various societal issues from different backgrounds, the widows are bonded by their grief and their simmering rage, and each brings something unique to proceedings. The leading women are given excellent acting support from so many sources that there’s too many to mention. Standouts come from Daniel Kaluuya, who is genuinely menacing as Jamal’s ruthless henchman, and Jackie Weaver as Alice’s hard-faced mother. Veteran Robert Duvall is also magnificent, giving a brief yet bullish cameo as Jack’s crooked father Tom Mulligan, who is symbolic of Chicago’s longstanding history with corruption.
Widows is a riveting and rampant thriller that carries heft in its subject matter, but also captures the intrigue and exhilaration of the heist genre. It’s probably McQueen’s most mainstream work to date but doesn’t lack his signature visionary style. His acute artistic flair is as prominent as ever in a vehement, violent Chicago, adding considerable flesh to the bones of Flynn’s compelling screenplay to form a captivating cinematic caper.
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