What is admirable about director Steve McQueen is his raw dedication to character; whether they are despicable and broken or tortured and abused, McQueen always finds a way to make his characters interesting people with potent motivations. In Widows we are introduced to a flurry of characters all at once; which, for McQueen is not his typical approach, as most of his films are either character studies or journeys of a singular person navigating conflict.
Widows follows the story of the widowed wives of high stakes robbers as they aim to find answers behind their husbands disappearances and finish a job their husbands left behind.
What needs to be understood going in is that this is a story-driven film with many messages that it wants to broadcast; inequality, corruption, inherited crime, and racial divide just to name a few. Throughout audiences are shown a glimpse of the griminess within current day America, from behind the shiny oak desk to the hardened streets of Chicago. The messages are impactful and serve a purpose in the story. That purpose is to supplement a different primary message; how people grow. This story is in essence about how a group of widowed women evolved and adapt to the obstacles in front of them, that is what is impactful in Widows. This film is a mystery at heart and there are some surprising moments throughout, sadly many are torn away by the film’s unfortunate predictability. This film managed to be tense and engaging, but simply held no candlelight to the likes of other heist films recently produced, like American Animals (2018).
With characters breaking through their shell being the theme of the film you get little in the way of character development of our lead. Viola Davis plays a hardened woman with a drive to uncover answers, she’s emotionally drained yet fearful of the uncertainty of her future. Sadly her character arc was underwhelming as I felt little to no attachment to her outcome, despite wanting to. Her character’s apathy makes sense but does little in helping you enjoy her on-screen. The major character arc came from supporting actress Elizabeth Debicki. Debicki plays the role of an abused young woman who is taken advantage of at every turn. Debicki shines in this role as a funny and emotionally vulnerable young woman that is attempting to dig herself out of victimhood. Colin Farrell plays a hotshot politician at odds with his aging father played by Robert Duvall. Both Farrell and Duvall do brilliantly in this surprisingly complex father son relationship. Supporting roles from Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo are acceptable but forgettable.
The technicalities is where this film soars. Its strengths lie in how it was constructed; the tight editing of the story keeps you engaged while you’re treated to the superb framing and skillfully executed camera work that the talented Steve McQueen accomplishes. The technical feats produced here are what make his films digestible and clean. With jarring sound design keeping you immersed in the brutality of the violence inflicted throughout the film. The score is deep and tense, keeping you alert when the moments mattered.
We get striking natural lighting in many shots and beautiful sweeping camera work during fast paced sequences. The natural lighting lies primarily on the fact that McQueen is renowned for using film stock as his go-to method of capture in his films. Widows was shot on 35mm film stock, lending fantastic naturalistic lighting and a color palette that very few digital cameras or color grades can match. McQueen states that he uses film not because he is an auteur but because he is an amateur, he argues that he uses film simply because a bad shot on film looks leagues better than a bad shot on digital; so for him, it’s a method to prevent mistakes more than it is a technique to achieve a beautiful image. In any case, beauty is the result.
I left satisfied knowing I watched a well constructed film, but left without a smile since this film does not provide a conclusion that is bleak in a good way, but rather, quite stock-standard. This is a damn well-made heist film and that’s that; even if it is clear that some sacrifices were made to make this film more accessible – Widows slow pace is not without a large cash reward.