Friday, 12 October 2018

LFF 2018:
Widows: A matter of wife and death

dir. Steve McQueen, UK / USA, 2018
The very first shot of Widows sees Viola Davis and Liam Neeson in a moment so intimate that it's almost uncomfortably intrusive to watch. So it comes as some relief when director Steve McQueen cuts away, throwing us instead into the back of a getaway van being driven at high speed and shot at by persons unknown. It's a pulsating, stress-inducing, noisy, tense scene, but frankly anything's better than seeing quite so much of the Neeson tonguing technique.

It's a gloriously efficient opening, introducing us to Neeson (driving the getaway van) and his cronies, then swiftly dispatching them seconds later, allowing their widows to step into the frame and pull off both an improbable heist and the rest of the film like it ain't no thing. (It also introduces us to the long, unbroken shot technique that McQueen frequently deploys throughout the movie, which is both technically impressive and dramatically absorbing.)
McQueen, popping his thriller hat on for the first time, proves himself a master of the genre with almost comical ease. From cinematography, through editing, to an uncharacteristically restrained Hans Zimmer score, McQueen pushes all the right technical buttons at the right time and in the right order. But even that isn't enough: a century of male-dominated action cinema has rendered us sceptical that a bunch of women could do what this bunch of women do (even Ocean's Eight didn't help), so perhaps the trickiest part of getting Widows right is to make us believe in their motivation. And this is where McQueen's script - co-written with Gone Girl's Gillian Flynn - impresses on a more subtle level.

There isn't a ton of characterisation going on here, but then this is a genre film with a lot of characters, so it hardly matters. What there is a lot of - although it's rarely in your face - is an underlying social commentary that teases out all the reasons why these people are what they are and do what they do. Financial, sexual and racial inequality, gentrification, domestic violence, parental failings, gun culture and - most pointedly - political corruption are all put forward as contributing factors towards a desperate situation that might seem far-fetched, but think of it as a metaphor for empowerment of minorities and it all falls into place.
Away from all that boring subtext, there are some truly great performances to relish here. Davis, obviously, is flawless, the stoic leader who emotionally seals herself up for most of the film but can't help but show more chinks in her armour the deeper she gets in. Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki are more than able support, while Daniel Kaluuya proves he can be as terrifying as he can be charming, and Robert Duvall adds some impeccable old school class. Only Colin Farrell gets the short straw, finding little to do with the cardboard cutout character he's given.

The whole idea of Widows feels a little trivial for a director whose previous work has been dark, serious and verging on arthouse, but this is Steve McQueen stepping outside his comfort zone and proving he can probably turn his hand to anything, such is his natural talent. I'd say it would be fascinating to see what he does next, but that's been the case since he took up directing in the first place.

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