Critic After Dark

Directed by Steve McQueen
STEVE MCQUEEN’s Widows is a sketch of urban corruption, a low-key indictment of racism and (a touch louder) misogyny, a rich character study. It’s also a hell of a crime pic.
The film literally begins with a bang: two men dragging a wounded third into a garage and into a van, the fourth hauling heavy bags of money; the garage door rolls open to a barrage of SWAT gunfire, the van flipped over by an expanding fireball.
McQueen doesn’t waste much time. Taking the original series (which he saw and loved at 13 years of age) and collaborating with writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) he condenses six 50-minute episodes into an old-fashioned heist flick overstuffed with plot and subtext, the latter giving the former a thoughtful texture, the former goosing the latter to unruly seriously entertaining life. With the men dead we meet the women who suffer the consequences of their passing: Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis), Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez), and Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki). Veronica’s husband Harry (Liam Neeson) stole the money (a cool $2 million) from gangster Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry), who wants all of it back in 30 days; Linda owns a store selling quinceanera gowns which (she learns) is being repossessed to pay for her husband Carlos’ (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) gambling debts; Alice sports a bruise that her husband Florek (Jon Bernthal) has given her. Alice, in addition to the occasional beating, is also without a source of income; her mother Agnieszka (Jacki Weaver) suggests prostitution.
Veronica with the two million hanging over her head reaches out to a friend of Harry’s: Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who pleads helplessness. She turns to fellow grievers and presents an alternate, more desperate solution: she found Harry’s notebooks outlining the details for projects past and planned; they — Harry and his companions’ widows — should carry out what should have been Harry’s next job, which should net them an even cooler five million.
The plan proceeds not without bumps, and here’s where the women’s resourcefulness comes into play: when they need a getaway driver Linda recruits her daughter’s babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo); when they need guns Alice feigns ignorance and approaches a seasoned gun owner — a woman — for advice, citing a fellow female’s need for home protection; later Alice pulls off an even bigger coup by seducing real estate developer David (Lukas Haas) into revealing to her the location described in Harry’s notebook (the plan maps the rooms and dimensions to the square foot but carefully refrains from naming the building). As Veronica explains to her co-conspirators, their biggest asset is being who they are. Why? “No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.”
All this takes place against a background of big-city politics: Manning needed the two million Harry stole to fund his campaign for city alderman; helping Veronica recover that two million would have meant Mulligan — running for the same position — could lose. Turns out Mulligan is in deeper than he lets on, but part of what’s both infuriating and invigorating about the film is how men deny women aid or even simple recognition, either out of calculation or sheer cluelessness; the women are left with no choice but to seize the initiative for themselves.
There’s been discussion (by Richard Brody, in the New Yorker) of the film’s implied cynical politics (skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven’t seen the film!) — Manning is both a crime boss and corrupt political figure; Mulligan is involved with the unions and equally corrupt, though he has managed to keep some distance from the more violent criminal activities in the city. The film is accused of painting a withering portrait of unions and local city officials, has little to say about grassroots activism beyond its apparent uselessness. Some of this may have something to do with McQueen’s fatalism, on display in films like Shame and 12 Years a Slave; I submit that McQueen, like most cynics, is a closet romantic. Jack is dominated (or, to put it bluntly, cowed) by his father Tom (Robert Duvall), the most virulently racist and misogynist character in the film and a symbol of old moneyed white power; McQueen and Flynn solve Jack’s problem by having Tom shot in the course of the women’s heist. Jack wins the election mainly through sympathy votes and — it’s implied, flawed and steeped in corruption that he is — the newly placed alderman may represent the city’s best hope for renewal; at worse Veronica, who knows most if not all of Jack’s secrets, can expose him.
Brody also accuses the film of grafting much of the racial and political commentary to the plot without much thought to having one reinforce the other, and here I think he’s on more solid ground. We learn of a source of pain in Veronica’s marriage — involving an all-too-common police shooting — and aside from being a useful plot function, the flashback feels more like a nod to current events; more interesting is Jack’s awareness that he’s a white politician running in an increasingly black community (a subplot that may have been inspired by a similar one in The Wire) — and hopefully this awareness keeps the man in moral check.
I’m familiar with McQueen’s confident gliding camera style, how he uses it to counterbalance the heavy inevitability in his pictures; applied to this genre exercise it’s a refreshing tonic to the cliche of jangling footage cut to frenetic beat. McQueen’s camera pads after its characters, stalking them almost, a stealthy presence that only adds to the film’s sense of menace; the script, in turn, with its plot twists and action sequences, helps leaven McQueen’s usually glum nihilism. And in Davis, Debicki, Rodriguez, and Erivo he has a winning hand of queens bring the intricate script to life, add physical charisma and a lived sense of desperation to what, when all is said and done, is a terrific, underrated thriller.