We have a gang that performs heists together, they all have wives, during one job it goes as bad as it can and now all the members of the gang have widows that must go on without them. A simple and solid set-up that can lend itself to many different end products, what we get is one of the greatest heist movies I have ever seen.
Pretty much as soon as the movie begins you realise you are in the hands of a master. Showing one married couple while startlingly parallel cutting to a disastrous heist that all the husbands are a part of. Already we efficiently have a grasp of who these characters are, how they relate to each other and what the setup is.
The couples are Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) and Veronica (Viola Davis), Carlos Perelli (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Florek Gunner (Jon Bernthal) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki). All come from different worlds, are different ethnicities, have different relationships and would certainly never be together by their own choice if we’re not for the job and their husbands.
Their husbands may be gone but the consequences are still waiting for them. Harry stole money from a man named Jamaul Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) a crime boss that is also running for office but still wants his money back, also is his younger brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) a truly merciless creature that kills and tortures without any sign of sympathy.
Veronica is living in a penthouse and has some things to sell but nowhere near the amount Harry stole, however, he did keep a notebook with detailed notes on how to do every job, including the next one that none of them can perform now but the target and money is still there. All that’s required are people that are willing to do it and have the incentive.
Steve McQueen as a filmmaker has never shied away from the tough subject matter. For his debut made Hunger, about IRA prisoners that slowly die due to a hunger strike, then made Shame about a spiraling sex addict and 12 Years a Slave about a free man taken into slavery. Widows is a solid premise that is actually based off a miniseries in the eighties, which McQueen, along with coscreenwriter Gillian Flynn (who also doesn’t shy away from the tough material) have taken the concept and modernized it as well as shifted the setting to the United States. Within his works, we are always given a variety of techniques, from wide still shots to a scene being played out in closeup and sequences of rapid editing. He also incorporates sound very skillfully, some scenes will play very quietly then there will be a loud bang to cut the peaceful mood, others there will be a continuous sound through to the scene to provide timing and texturing of the scene and mood.
Veronica’s and Harry’s penthouse is a slick modern all-white suite that looks out on the city. Also are most of her clothes (slick, modern and white). When she decides to descend into the world of crime by performing a heist there is the inclusion of some black items of clothing before wearing all black for the job itself. Not the most subtle filmmaking ever but effective is effective.
This is a heist movie. However there are still many variations to be had within a genre, recently I reviewed Oceans 8 and talked about how it had a graceful, smooth camera throughout. Such an approach is appropriate for that movie because it is very Hollywood, about witty talking characters and, glamorous outfits and has an upbeat tone. This is street level with, obvious brutal realities and things can go very wrong very fast. When they do the camera goes to shaky hand-held, this is so we feel like we are there in the midst of the running and the catastrophe.
Widows succeed because like any other genre it is not really about the subject matter but a framing. Godzilla isn’t about a monster but a catastrophe, Apocalypse Now isn’t really about the battles but the mentality of war itself and we are not invested in LOGAN for the action set pieces but the character in that situation. Little of the movie’s runtime is the heist itself, but before we go into it we learn who all the characters are and why they are doing this and what is at stake. It is a story about bold, beautiful, damaged and flawed characters dealing with the very difficult hand life has dealt them.