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Steve McQueen's Widows is effortless, masterful cinema

The 12 Years a Slave director turns Lynda La Plante saga Widows into a brilliant thriller.

Two lovers in bed share morning kisses. Thieves flee a hail of bullets. An abused wife nurses a black eye. Kids run rampant in their mother’s shop. Police detonate a getaway van in a vicious fireball.

These are the audacious opening moments of Widows, the first film from British director Steve McQueen since 12 Years a Slave, in 2013. Scenes of ordinary life intercut with high crime are no mere montage, but a skilful introduction to a chronicle of heists and political intrigue.

If the fear was that McQueen, in adapting Lynda La Plante’s 1980s British television series in a co-write with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, might be turning more conventional, listen to that opening sequence: a lustful growl becomes a gunshot, a child’s scream morphs into a screech of tyres – it’s cinema of effortless mastery.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

That explosion consumes a gang of robbers led by Harry (Liam Neeson), their $2 million take with it. They leave behind widows – Harry’s fearsome wife Veronica (Viola Davis), towering siren Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and exasperated striver Linda (Michelle Rodriguez). Before long, the man who was robbed comes to collect. That’s Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a former crook turned politician who is running for Chicago City Council.

Veronica and her bereaved makeshift team take up their partners’ mantle and complete Harry’s final job.

But these are not the only characters, for Chicago itself plays a big part. McQueen is attuned to settings and environments and how they inform the people who live in them: Veronica’s white-walls-and-glass apartment, Linda’s kitschy ball-gown store of frothy tutus and plastic tiaras, and the slums so near to luxury villas. In one seamless shot, we listen to the scheming of council politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) while the camera roves the cityscape, ghettos giving way to high society within a few blocks. 

McQueen knows pain, too. Hunger (2008) was a tale of torture during Northern Ireland’s Troubles; Shame (2011) a tour of carnal compulsion; 12 Years whipped flesh from bone. Widows, too, has its share of brutality, mostly dealt by Jamal’s brother and enforcer (a menacing Daniel Kaluuya). Though what powers the film is the threat of force, or its echo.

As the target of such force, Davis can play terrified. She can also do furious, indignant and vengeful and is the undisputed star of the film.  

Widows escapes the shackles of genre. It is both a vast panorama of real-world corruption, female indignation and racial animosity and consummately thrilling entertainment. 

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★★

Video: 20th Century Fox

This article was first published in the December 1, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.