I’ll be honest, I greeted the announcement that Steve McQueen’s Widows was going to open the London Film Festival this year with both pure joy and more than a hint of trepidation. The pure joy part is obvious – it’s the newest film from STEVE GODDAMNED MCQUEEN (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave), co-scripted by GILLIAN GODDAMNED FLYNN (Sharp Objects, Gone Girl), based on the Lynda LaPlante series from the 80s, and with a cast list whose combined star wattage could power small nations for a month – but the trepidation is based more in prior personal experience. Opening Galas at the London Film Festival, in the past, largely haven’t been very notable, almost by design. They’re middle-of-the-road pablum that are pleasantly inoffensive but ultimately fade out of view by the time the near-fortnight is done, setting a baseline quality for the rest of the Festival to work from. And whilst I get why you don’t blow your best shot for the opener, it doesn’t stop me from finding prior openers Breathe, A United Kingdom, and Suffragette from being nothing but inauspicious and insubstantial ways to pass the time. So, as I queued up around the Leicester Square VUE at 8:20am along with seemingly every single member of the British Film Press & Industry, I will confess to having been a tad anxious that maybe today was the day that Steve McQueen wasn’t going to direct a five-star film.
I needn’t have worried. Widows is not a movie designed to be forgotten in any kind of hurry. This is not a movie content to settle for good. To flip a pastor’s speech for a meta-point about the Festival’s prior choices of Opening Galas, “What happened to us that ‘normal’ now passes for ‘excellence?'” Widows is not normal but it is the dictionary definition of excellence. McQueen’s fourth feature doesn’t just smash the Opening Gala curse, it smashes damn-near everything else that has so far seen the inside of a British cinema screen in 2018.
This is lean, mean, pulsepounding filmmaking of focus and determination of the highest order. You want to see what McQueen’s signature controlled intensity would look like when applied to a relatively straightforward genre piece, rather than his wheelhouse of personal character dramas headlined to some degree by Michael Fassbender? Widows is your answer and McQueen is such a perfect fit for this kind of heist thriller that I am kind of offended he didn’t try it sooner. His and Flynn’s screenplay has a vast reach – set in Chicago, following three widows, Veronica (Viola Davis) Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), of career criminals as they are forced into pulling a heist to pay back a feared gang boss running for his district’s Alderman office, Jamal (Bryan Tyree Henry), after a botched job – but moves with a relentless pace. McQueen splits his time between the widows’ individual grief (all of them were victims of abuse by their husbands in some way), their planning of the last job Veronica’s husband Harry (Liam Neeson) left behind, and the Alderman election itself which has become its own cesspool of criminality and stolen money.
Flynn and McQueen resultantly juxtapose the personal dramas of these women, all minorities that society has beaten down and marginalised with gleeful abandon (Debicki’s character comes from a family of immigrant descendents), with wider social examinations of the state of America and the city of Chicago. The Alderman race is between the aforementioned gang boss planning on using the position more as another income stream and a way to get out of the game – “In that office, they come at you with cameras and microphones. Out here, they come at you with guns,” as he puts it – and the privileged son, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), of the long-time incumbent Alderman (Robert Duvall) being forced into the position by his retiring father despite his violent displeasure with politics. Whilst Jamal keeps one foot in the game via his enforcer brother (Daniel Kaluuya) and one foot in politics by preaching some genuine points that his community wants to hear, Jack alternates between symbolic gestures that don’t do anything substantial but allow him to feel good about his supposed progressive politics – a staunch contrast to his racist father who believes politics to be a family business that “n*ggers” should have no interaction with despite their district being majority Black – and a sputtering spoiled child of absolute entitlement reaching for his big boy pants and embarrassed to find them ill-fitting.
One of the best examples of this comes from one particular long-take, brilliantly lensed by McQueen’s long-time DP Sean Bobbitt, that follows Jack as he leaves a sparsely-attended rally to promote one of his causes (minority owned businesses for women whose acronym he tries to force into a cheering rally cry) in an underdeveloped and poor neighbourhood, gets into his car with his assistant and starts blathering on about how much he hates his town and asking the assistant whether she’s slept with a black man before, finally finishing as the car pulls up at his house, barely three minutes away in a nicer and more affluent neighbourhood. He’s around the corner from his constituents and a world away from them at the same time, retreating to the safety of his privileged bubble like the most infamous of Bushs.
It’s about the push-pull between desperate people and actual criminals, how one is not necessarily the other or how the former can drive people pushed to the edge to the latter. But Widows does not undersell its exploration of grief, either. In fact, one of my favourite things about the movie is how the job doesn’t bring its three widows, plus an accomplice (Cynthia Erivo) pulled in to make up the numbers, together as friends. Their personal wounds are too raw, their life experiences so similar yet so massively difficult that the closest thing to bonding the other women have is riding Veronica in private for being such a hard-ass to them. Instead, they have to work through their grief in their own ways – Linda throwing herself somewhat ineptly into their plan, Alice being forced by her abusive mother (Jackie Weaver) into getting on the market for rich guys in order to secure a future due to otherwise having no skills or education, and Veronica by latching on tighter to her dog (carrying it everywhere she goes) and digging up secrets relating to the aftermath of their son’s death years earlier.
That scene in particular is made even rawer and more devastating by McQueen’s cold and direct style, violence arriving without warning and ending in an instant. The entire movie drips with menace, whether it’s a botched getaway from a van falling apart or the aftermath to Veronica’s discovery of deep betrayals from the grave. Davis is especially fantastic in her scenes, the brief moments where her front slips away to reveal an agonised hurting woman underneath coated in stinging vulnerability, although that’s not intended to undersell everyone else. The entire cast, no matter how small a part, leave an impression, although Daniel Kaluuya mad-dogging his way through a truly terrifying turn and Cynthia Erivo having an instant breakout join Davis on the stand-outs list.
It wasn’t until the lights came up after the credits roll had finished that the realisation set in that I hadn’t breathed properly across the entire 2 hours and 10 minutes that Widows ran for. This is intense, perfectly-paced, relentless filmmaking that does just as much for the brain as it does the heart-rate. Flynn achieves the same symbiosis with McQueen that she conjured with David Fincher on Gone Girl, whilst McQueen flexes his muscles and reasserts his position as one of the best filmmakers alive today. A pure triumph in every respect and perhaps the best film of the whole year.
Bar set. Good luck matching it.