Widows is something of a stylistic gear change for a British filmmaker whose career has been lavished with the sort of unbridled praise that few of his peers have the pleasure to enjoy.
Afforded the prestige of cutting the ribbon to open the 62nd London Film Festival, Steve McQueen’s thriller, based upon a novel by Lynda La Plante and adapted into a screenplay with the help of ‘Gone Girl’ author Gillian Flynn, is a competent work, no doubt, but one that wants to tick so many boxes that the pen runs out of ink as it hurtles through the checklist process.
Opening with a high velocity chase, bullets and blood, he also delivers diverting, momentary snapshots delving into the respective relationships of the rogues at the heart of a heist. Ultimately, however, the caper in question is a failed one: all these men die. In their wake, an unsatisfied debt and a collection of widows, including Viola Davis (Veronica), Michelle Rodriguez (Linda) and Elizabeth Debicki (Alice) face a predicament that forces them into action. Together, they unite and strive to vanquish their burden.
Their plight plays out against the backdrop of a mayoral election campaign full of dubious backdoor haggles and an old white establishment rubbing up against a new, purposeful black voice aiming to represent the people of Chicago. A world where politics crosses over with crime and crime crosses over with politics. The murky waters that govern these hierarchical positionings are exploited with a typically cynical slant by the ever-cynical McQueen.
There is no contesting that McQueen has an eye for style. He also tends to showcase the darker side of human nature on a repeated, ad nauseum basis. It is fair to observe that the glue that binds his canon is one of characters motivated by questionable exploits. This in itself is not something that makes him misanthropic. It is not that a protagonist may be fuelled by something off-colour that makes this so, it is more in the population and execution of his universe(s). Universes that tend to be occupied solely by characters who are cold/sociopathic/psychotic (*delete as, where and when appropriate) at the worst, and selfishly inclined and self-serving at their best. There is very little space for warmth or sanguine skip of hope.
Not even Michael Haneke is so relentlessly bleak. Even that famously dour and caustic Austrian does not have such a poorly held regard for human nature. The result of McQueen’s pitiful view, which runs through Shame, Hunger and 12 Years A Slave (the latter inevitably) is that the relentless nature of his pessimism ensures that an audience is left fatigued; enervated souls crying out for some levity or kindness. But levity isn’t to be had. And kindness rarely so. In land McQueen, no matter the space, industry or locale, the culture is an uncaring, indifferent and even frequently sinister place.
Widows continues this trend. Daniel Kaluuya’s Jatemme Manning is pathologically sadistic, with ice cold blood running through his veins. This is no better showcased that in his cruel and unflinching maiming of a disabled man in what is one of the more affronting scenes on offer. Robert Duvall’s ageing man of office is racist and dyspeptic; wary of people of colour and a keen purveyor of offensive epithets. Viola Davis’s West Highland White terrier is the only symbol of innocence in the whole sordid saga. Nothing is sacred in Widows. No relationship beyond betrayal, and no loyalty to continue unabated and unquestioned.
No matter how Widows is dressed up, it is a genre piece. Taken in those terms, it is effective, as each constituent screw is placed in the right location to make the product work efficiently. Unfortunately though, it lacks heart. It lacks soul. Crucially, it also lacks anything that would render it memorable.
Widows played as part of 2018’s London Film Festival