REVIEW: Widows

So Ocean’s 8 just got a dark and gritty makeover…

After the tragic passing of their husbands, a band of fearless widows ally with one another to payback a debt left in their spouse’s wake, leaving the women no option but to carry out a caper of large proportions.

Putting it out there right now, I was really excited for Steve McQueen’s Widows – I am a big fan of the director. McQueen, in my opinion, has made nothing but perfect films since his debut with the heavily confronting, Michael Fassbender led feature, Hunger. Since then he’s reunited with Fassbender for the genius Shame and critically lauded 12 Years A Slave; both films I would easily note as two of the best of the 21st century. The thing is, McQueen has always struck me as a filmmaker whom would never and supposedly ever compromise his style. The man has a way of making the most uncomfortable elements of reality, such as starvation, sexual addiction and torture, so fascinating and compelling to watch. His films are difficult to process; quite possibly cinema’s most confronting auteur, behind maybe Lars Von Trier (who, at the end of the day, is a bit of a troll). The viewing experience of a McQueen film is very much like a horror film, where you clasp your hands over your eyes, yet cannot help but peak at the onscreen intensity. And I guess that would be the best way to describe McQueen – a modern day horror director who doesn’t specialise in ghosts or gore but instead real life and the horror found in the antics of humanity. I mean, McQueen makes us all look like partly sympathetic and partly deranged sociopaths, to which, well, we kind of are.

Widows emerges as a different sort of cinematic effort from McQueen, where as he drops the more shockingly real and depraved stories he has been best known to commit to, in order to instead churn out a more heightened crime thriller that never truly wavers from McQueen’s style, but does indeed feel ever-so slightly different at times as compared to the director’s previous work. I liked Widows – didn’t love it, but I really enjoyed it. The film was directed and penned by McQueen, but also received writing credits from author turned screenwriter, Gillian Flynn, of Gone Girl fame. Not only was Flynn’s Gone Girl an impressive read in terms of a novel, but her film adaptation of the book alongside director, David Fincher, was possibly my favourite, if not one, of my favourite films of 2014 and possibly of the whole decade. So again, my hopes were high for Widows and backed by an incredible all-star cast, I would have to say on a technical level Widows was a near-perfect film. The feature encompassed thriller, action, crime and mystery genres all incredibly well whilst actors and writers united to add flavour to some truly remarkable character work.

Over his filmography, McQueen has appeared attracted to working predominately on films centred around prisoners, whether the literal ones or figurative ones – in his hands they all feel heavily victimised. In Hunger, quite literally, Michael Fassbender portrays a prisoner who goes on a hunger strike for prison rights… and suffers greatly for it. In Shame, Michael Fassbender portrays a man who falls victim – falls prisoner – to his own sexual addiction… and suffers greatly for it. In 12 Years A Slave… well, you get the picture. Amongst purely focusing on prisoners and their plight, McQueen explores the downfall of said prisoners at the hands of corrupt, unfair and unsanctioned societies whom quite willingly and unapologetically allow the prisoners to suffer greatly for reasons that will make you question the ethics and morality of humanity in general. Widows was no exception.

The protagonists fell prey to their loved one’s misdoings, all becoming prisoners to the inferno left in their husband’s wake. One widow becomes prisoner to her husband’s lifestyle when those he stole from comes a-knockin’; another becomes prisoner to her husband’s abusive and controlling nature, spooling into further relationships with her mother and later boyfriends; a third becomes prisoner to debt and family drama she cannot surface from. Together though, the women become prisoners to their grief, as I believe that to be the main theme McQueen appears to be hacking into. The women suffer trying to combat their grief by proving their strength and worth in a city that looks down on them. Chicago plays as big a character in this film as any other of the protagonists do – a filthy, corrupt, seething being who brings out the worst in those who live off it. Characters try to alternatively improve Chicago, only to succumb to it and allow the land to consume them. And with the warring politicians in the background of all these horrendous events, its easy to then assimilate how the widows are not only prisoners to their grief but to the city they have become so mortally tied to.

Every ounce of feeling and thematic richness is portrayed well by McQueen and Flynn’s script, but it’s the actors for which really brought to life a lot of the film’s needed intensity. Viola Davis was outstanding, relishing in one of her heaviest roles yet whilst backed by a tremendous Liam Neeson whom, after his long running old man action movie stints, reminded audiences how truly dedicated a performer he is. Elizabeth Debicki captivated in every sequence, possibly being the film’s best talent whilst Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo also delighted in their meaty roles. Easy to forget but not to be looked over, Jacki Weaver killed it in Widows as did the devilish Brian Tyree Henry. Again though, I return to Daniel Kaluuya as what seems to be a recurring motif in my reviews of the actor’s recent films, and… oh sh*t, is this guy outstanding. If Heath Ledger’s Joker was silent and subtle, that would be Kaluuya in this film – wow, just wow. Yet, coming lastly to Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall, the onscreen father and son would probably have turned out the weakest performances of the cast; not to say the two actors were bad in Widows, however when playing against an ensemble cast for which went above and beyond, it was difficult to oversee what felt like slight overacting from Duvall and a shaky Chicago accent from Farrell. Though, on the whole, the cast was probably the best element of Widows – easily the best ensemble cast I have seen in a long, long, long time.

What Widows exceled in greatly, other than the cast, would have to be McQueen’s clean and unflinching direction of haunting moments. The point before where I noted how McQueen is a director of dramas who works predominately through a horror lens, well Widows has McQueen take a turn to observing drama more through the lens of a thriller. The film is tense but ridiculously smart as well; previously having noted the incredibleness of Kaluuya’s performance, a lot of it is owed to how well McQueen’s behind the scenes direction and camerawork compliment the performance. Two particular sequences featuring Kaluuya, with one being on a basketball court and the other in an apartment, just completely sold the concentration and unpredictability of a moment. And its not only with Kaluuya’s scenes; the film really had a knack for drowning its audience in moments for which are able to make you feel like you’re standing side by side with the characters in extremely intimate and still moments. Feelings of pain and sorrow are able to wash over you as if the protagonist’s problems are your own – all whilst McQueen pulls the strings from behind, knowing exactly which ones to tug at the right time.

However, that’s not to say I found this film perfect. Widows, despite being technically genius, I would still name McQueen’s weakest film. As I said Shame and 12 Years A Slave command the leader board as the best of the bunch whilst Hunger, in my books, only misses out on top spot for its meandering runtime; Widows, meanwhile, comes last due to elements of its narrative and its effect on the characters.

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(20th Century Fox, 2018)

To be clear though, a lower level McQueen film is still leagues better in quality than the best effort of most directors. Widows was an incredible film that will indefinitely please both film buffs and general audiences, although judging the film from McQueen standards, I have to be ever-so slightly harsh on few of its noticeable elements. As I said with the characters, almost every one of them were flawlessly written and excellently acted, however there were inconsistencies in the character work that was both acknowledgeable and obvious blunders of the plot. The easy answer would be that Widows just sometimes felt like it had too many characters and therefore too much story to pander to.

Now, I looked up Widows before writing this review to see if it was based on a book and therefore and had reasoning for compressing so much into two hours, though that idea turned out to be false. What I had found was that Widows was based off a 1980s TV show of the same name, which therefore leads me to believe that elements of the film’s story and characters should have been fleshed out more or just cut out completely. Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki’s characters felt perfectly rounded and ran down two character arcs for which excelled completely in intent and execution, though Michelle Rodriguez’s character could not fall under the same banner. Rodriguez’s character came so close to what felt like a complete and fulfilling arc, yet, towards the end of the film, she committed an act for which would and should be perceived as life changing, although said act never really made much of an impact on her character or anyone else around her. Meanwhile, Farrell and Henry’s characters never truly had their stories completely conclude in satisfying ways, whilst the narrative in general felt so packed that standouts like Kaluuya and Weaver never even had a chance to flaunt their performances and characters entirely, leaving much to be desired. Although, my biggest error towards the story and characters would have to be embodied within Erivo’s character; she appeared halfway through the movie, having not much to do with the plot and suddenly became a main player without any rhyme or reason. The character did not feel like she had much of a purpose concerning the narrative, for which would then sum up the story and characters in general, hence how purposes and reasoning’s for certain structural decisions just did not completely work.

Having to make room for so many characters as well also really sold the pivotal caper scene cheap as the widows, during the heist, operated with such finesse, the audience was left to wonder “hmm… how did they work all this out so well, because we sure as hell did not see any of this being planned”. The heist sequence, although technically executed flawlessly with awesome thrills and chills, just felt jarring because there never felt like a build to said moment. Also, being a Flynn script, Widows featured a Gone Girl like twist towards its final few sequences that at first really worked and captivated me, but due to the film’s general conclusion, especially around the heist sequence, the movie petered out a bit too much for me, forcing the twist to equally suffer in the movie’s closing chapters.

Though again, I shall reiterate, a lower level McQueen film is still much greater than some director’s best of the best. Widows was not some incredible film, but it did deliver some incredible filmmaking. There were certain shots in this film that said so much with singular moments that felt so devastatingly and thematically richer than other movies in their entireties. With an opening sequences for which I would go so far to call some of McQueen’s best work and genuinely some of the best filmmaking on display in 2018, it’s hard not to fully recommend Widows; the film is thoughtful and dramatic whilst also being effectively thrilling and action-orientated.

I know how I noted that the heist felt sudden and “unprepared” for the audience, yet part of me also felt that was the point. Widows was so engaged with its characters and their inner turmoil, coinciding with the grief and tragedy of their loved one’s passing’s, that their journeys in search to “gain” in place of “loss” may have justly been the true intentions of the film’s narrative. I mean just look at the title, ‘Widows’; it set the tone for a sombre watch that dealt with pain, anguish and heartache whilst framing its characters as prisoners of their fallen partners and their dirty deeds. They became prisoners of their past – of their sadness – of their grief… and trust me, they suffered for it.

Widows is a drama first and foremost, and although it slipped here and there in extending to further heights, damn did it excel above others that similarly seethe within the heist genres.

Widows is a bloody… CRUSADE!!


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