Heist films are a particularly lively bunch of genre films. They are aesthetically riveting, sprinkled with surprises, and are predominantly splashed with suave. They are the “cool-hand-luke” of the cinema. Enrapturing any and everyone with their sophisticated posture, and enriching the cinema with their soft-spoken wisdom. It’s usually a gang of anti-heroes on a path for vengeance, led by an unexplained genius of some kind who has been stealing and thieving since the age of a toddler. All of that, all of that stock-formatted mess, all of that is nowhere to be found in the immaculate framing of Steve McQueen’s newest feature (and front-running best picture for me) “Widows.” A film about a group of “Widows” picking up the pieces of a four-man, now dead, crew of heist aficionados, the stereotypical team of robbers who had a job go sideways and got lost in the blaze of the chaos.
It’s a film born out of that nebula of curiosity, that moment after a movie like an “Oceans” or a “Dog Day Afternoon” in which we inquire: what happens if the job goes wrong? More importantly, what happens afterward? How would a society that demonizes criminal action as equal to the same punishment across the board react to a thief killed in the crossfire, a thief leaving behind a family of three? Are we supposed to feel bad for the family, as if they were the con-job all along? What if they knew though, then are we supposed to demonize them? Arrest them for recognizing the whereabouts, the ins and outs, the Xs and Os?
This is where “Widows” lies, dead and center in the frame of curiosity, that spark of an investigation. It’s a brilliant genre exercise, fueled by emotional conflicts and passionate-driven compositions of characters; it's placing societal inequalities, the fatigue of corruption, and the obvious visceral frustration pointed at a bullshit system underneath the microscope. How we relish a poor feeding the wealthy kind of culture, an antiquated and legally abiding, swamp-ridden democracy. How that sort of system is paved upon the backs of the societally inequal, a continuance of doing whatever it takes to stay in power.
Least to say, McQueen’s newest powerhouse is one that works on multiple levels. Maneuvering its way through genre-expectations, societal messaging, and personal talking points in which we’re enjoying the ferocity of such a ride, but we’re not walking away without learning a thing or two before we head for the exits. It works as a pure pulp-ridden piece of entertainment. It works as a commentary on how often it feels like we have to take back what we believe to be ours or run the risk of never having it at all. It’s a film that is rightful of such praise-riddled terminology like: “tour-de-force.”
Which is perhaps the best way to describe Viola Davis performance as the late-wife of Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson in one of his best performances since forever ago). She carries the longing, the aching pain, of grief farther and further than most actresses could. Her moments of release, primitively screaming out into the emptiness of a now empty apartment, are some of the film’s highest moments. Her moments of tussling with an imagining of her lover’s return, she stumbles in the fog of depression, her mutation from sadness to anger; all of it organically formulates to the point that it's foaming out of the funnel of what is, perhaps, McQueen’s masterwork.
McQueen is no rookie to any of this, the complicated intricacies that are human emotion have always been of the utmost of importance to him. Whether it's that of the self-sacrifice mentality for a cause that can be seen in “Hunger,” the smog of bliss to be found in our addictions as seen in “Shame,” or that of the legitimizing of the pressure that hope, real hope, is placed underneath during times of hell as seen in “12 Years a Slave.” The human condition has always been intriguing to McQueen, and Gillian Flynn is one hell of a dance partner.
I’ve left most of the remnants of the story out of this review because it's one that is better seen than told. Amalgamating itself like a chess-board, fabricating a story that is incredibly difficult to predict, and one that is crisply-fine-tuned. Riding the coattails of the masterful adaptation of her gut-wrenchingly somber novella “Sharp Objects,” Flynn’s script for the adaptation of Lynda La Plante’s novel is sleek in its design. She and McQueen are careful never to allow their film to sink into political waters too much, keeping its head above water with the crackles of dialogue without ever calling attention to itself or allowing itself to indulge within its own preachings of socio-politically-charged vignettes. It brings itself together with that of a fray of women who vary in personality, family life, and background.
It is only till you begin to remove yourself from the story that you notice the lack of coincidence present in that of how Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), and Veronica (Viola Davis) are Polish, Latino, and Black, respectively, nevermind the distinctive economic backgrounds of each of them. A lot of that makeup, that genetic coding, of “Widows” has to do, in part, with its points on corruption in how it's both a big bully for cowards to hide behind, but also an unmistakable equalizer in the shadowed battleground of politics. A lot of this is painted in the political race that occurs in the foreground, one between a prodigy white rich boy and a black man from the streets of Chicago. It’s about that changing of the guard, how that terrifies the white monarchy of American politics, and how the railroads built to such prestige are usually paved with blood and money. This discourse is exchanged between a number of characters in “Widows” though, but there is a balance, a level-headed genius to this film, one that is only reflected in the talented ensemble that echoes Davis’ exceptional depiction.
Debicki has had a great year thus far, one that is finalized with this breakout role. Despite her well-tuned performance in “The Tale” earlier this year, her performance here, nearly allows her to steal the film entirely. Her body language, her posture, her weaponizing of feminity for power, all of it is subtle and brilliant; if you don’t pay attention closely, you’ll miss that genius at work.
It’s a rare film in which everyone is on their A-game, so much so that choosing a standout is as difficult of a decision as deciding what the key theme to take away is. Kaluuya is menacing, teetering upon the lines of a well-trained soldier and psychotic mercenary. Rodriguez is filled with hesitation, a mother unsure of whether or not vengeance is worth the cost, and Farrell teams with Duvall in this dichotomy of a son attempting to escape the blood-covered hands of his father. He breaks down in a handful of moments, cursing and releasing his pent-up aggression against a man who sees the world as nothing more than a foundation for his palace. Brian Tyree Henry is the frosting on top of it all, remaining stern and diligent with his cause and hunger for “real power” as he calls it, a man of color willing to become the man in charge by any means necessary.
There is no flashiness to be seen on the technical side of the fence though. Walker (who should be nominated for an Oscar for his work here) is just as good as the work seen in last years “Baby Driver," lowing the story to sway, arguably convulse, in and out of consciousness, Walker toys with memory here. Matching the excellence exhibited in HBO’s “Sharp Objects” earlier this summer, able to manifest the authenticity that is a memory, how we can wake up, reaching out for our lover, only to realize their no longer there anymore. He’s an editor maintaining the rhythm of a gargantuan story such as this one, and Zimmer’s composition of the score is like that of the crowning stroke. McQueen reserves it, holding it back for the first half of the film, allowing it to bubble, to foam up as the heist comes near, enhancing the tension of this ferocious experience.
The tapestry seen here makes “Widows” feel like a film worth seeing again. (Believe me, I am going to see it a few more times) Because, while you can take away the main course with ease, there are small patterns hidden underneath, some that need more light, more attention from you as the viewer. It's easy to get caught up in the grained lusciousness that is the cinematography, the potent whiff of the colors, and forget to pay attention to the story.
It’s a film that cuts so deep, so constructed upon itself that the texture spills over the top of the glass. So much so, that by the end of it you're left in awe of its majesty. It’s a film about loss, about sacrifice, about running the table of life, and how so many people even notice such an apparent truth. The discussions of meritocracy and cultural inhibitions to be had, well, that’s just the icing on the cake for a film as masterful as this one; how many other films from 2018 can say that?