The latest intense character drama from Steve McQueen is an impressively-cast, powerfully played and disturbingly violent epic with an intriguing pedigree.
McQueen’s previous pics number the factually-based Hunger, the written-straight-for-the-screen Shame and the adapted-from-a-memoir 12 Years A Slave, while this reveals at the end that it was drawn from Lynda La Plante’s very English 1983 novel (made into a popular TV series in 1985 and followed by sequels in smallscreen and print form).
McQueen and no less than Gillian Flynn (she of Gone Girl and Sharp Objects) worked on the script, updating, relocating and Americanising the material and adding a heaped dose of contemporary anger to proceedings, while McQueen’s prestige meant that a huge ensemble of players wanted to work with him. This can be a problem in other star-studded movies where you’re continually distracted by famous faces, but here they all underplay so carefully that you almost forget to wonder, “Who the Hell is that?”
An opening montage has four career criminals with their wives and families in what look like ordinary lives, but this is intercut with a disastrous heist gone wrong, leading to their fiery deaths (and don’t worry as all this is in the trailer, and it is called Widows, after all). Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) shares an intimate moment with his wife Veronica (Viola Davis); spendthrift Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) argues with Linda (Michelle Rodriguez); the abusive Florek (Jon Bernthal) threatens Alice (Elizabeth Debicki); and Jimmy (Coburn Goss) is cold to Amanda (Carrie Coon, in everything at the moment).
After the funerals, Veronica is intimidated by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), from whom the husbands stole $2 million before it went up in flames, and she’s driven to attempt to unite the four widows to conduct another robbery to net $5 million in cash. Jamal is also running for alderman in the South Side of Chicago, and he hypocritically speaks about noble notions while his brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya from Get Out) casually murders anyone who gets in their way.
To add to the atmosphere of villainy, Jamal is running against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the next-in-line of a storied political family with very shady pasts, Jack is a bad guy (everyone here is!) but has convinced himself that somehow he’s doing good work, yet his father Tom (Robert Duvall, no less) is a cruel, racist bastard. Duvall (87 this year) is at his controlled best here, and his semi-improvised scenes with Farrell are tremendous, even if they are both appalling people.
Naturally there are getting-to-know-each-other sequences between the widows, and Davis is excellent as she scolds the toughening-up Alice, considers enlisting her trusted but “simple” chauffeur Bash (Garret Dillahunt from TV’s Fear the Walking Dead) as a getaway driver and orders the purchase of guns (“This is America”, she states, as if referencing Childish Gambino’s song).
McQueen and Flynn handle this complex material with great assurance, keeping a lot of characters, subplots, detail and dialogue under control and ensuring that even the smallest roles have life. And it helps that they’re filled by such stellar performers: Elementary’s Jon Michael Hill has a scene as Reverend Wheeler; Lukas Haas is David, in a transactional relationship with Alice; Orange Is The New Black’s Michael Harney is a pretty hopeless detective; and Bad Times at the El Royale and Broadway star Cynthia Erivo is memorable as sick-of-this-shit hairdresser Belle.
Shooting for a study of corruption almost of the level of The Godfather, but so damn modern, this is obviously one of the key movies of 2018 and another McQueen saga guaranteed to provoke heated debate. It also paints an extraordinarily real and ugly portrait of the modern US of A: yes, this is America indeed.