LFF 2018 – Widows

I’m currently attending the BFI London Film Festival, so will be popping in with reviews of everything I get the chance to see. It’s the opening day of the festival proper, so here’s my take on the big kick-off with Steve McQueen’s thriller Widows…

Michelle Rodriguez, Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki in Steve McQueen's Widows
Michelle Rodriguez, Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki in Steve McQueen’s Widows

The task of following up a Best Picture winner is always a tough one. It’s a challenge that’s amplified to deafening extremes when the Best Picture winner in question is 12 Years a Slave – a fierce and important depiction of one of the worst things humanity has ever done. Steve McQueen, however, has proven himself completely equal to that challenge with Widows. Rather than trying to out-serious himself, McQueen has taken an abrupt left turn into a very different world – the stylish crime thriller.

Adapted from a Lynda La Plante TV series that aired in the 1980s, it’s a welcome crime tale that shines its spotlight on women. The central trio of characters – Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) – are left in the lurch when their criminal husbands are killed in a heist gone wrong. The money they were supposed to steal is owed to a terrifying crime syndicate and soon its ruthless enforcer Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) is hot on the tail of Veronica as her husband (Liam Neeson) was the group’s experienced kingpin. With the help of her husband’s exhaustive notebook, Veronica enlists her fellow widows to carry out a heist of their own.

It’s a compelling setup and one that seems an ideal fit for McQueen’s co-writer – Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn. The same twisted tone of Gone Girl is present here in a movie that’s as sure-footed with moments of quite extraordinary nastiness as it is when it’s depicting broader thriller material. McQueen bravely opens the film with a bracing montage of fraught heist scenes, intercut with Neeson and Davis’s idyllic, wealthy home life. It constantly seeks to reinforce this juxtaposition between home and work, with Davis earning real pathos as she grapples with taking the lead on the heist, while receiving painful reminders of her husband. On entering his warehouse lair, Davis pauses to wordlessly inhale his discarded jacket.

McQueen and Flynn are in no hurry to get through their story and, as a result, there’s a deliberate, consistent patience to the movie’s first hour. The strands of the story gradually come together, pulling in Colin Farrell‘s slimy politician and a brilliant Robert Duvall as his loathsome father. Their role in everything that’s going on is ultimately slightly under-cooked, but there is a certain delight in watching everything slot together like a blood-spattered jigsaw puzzle. Social commentary is dotted throughout the narrative and serves up some of the best barbed quips – a baffled question of where to get a gun is responded to with a deadpan “it’s America” – even if it never drives the movie in the way that it perhaps could’ve done.

This is Davis’s movie, though, and she is utterly imperious in the leading role. Her every appearance oozes gravitas and it’s clear from the start that she has inherited her husband’s laser focus and take-no-prisoners attitude. Spirited support is provided by Rodriguez and put-upon babysitter Cynthia Erivo, who joins the gang late on as a driver, but it’s Debicki who steals the show as a woman who is initially mistaken as an airhead by both Davis and the audience. Debicki is sympathetic throughout, but has exactly the mean streak she needs to get through the heist, earning the respect of all involved with her commitment – even as the effluent inevitably hits the fan.

Widows finds yet another gear with its climactic heist sequence, rescuing the movie from the middle act sag into which it falls in the wake of a huge twist that tumbles out of McQueen’s sleeve a little too early. There’s a visceral style to the heist, which benefits greatly from McQueen and Flynn’s patient build-up. With the exception of a couple of missteps, this is a delightful, gripping slice of genre fun from McQueen. It’s not going to continue his run as an awards season darling, but it does show that he’s a filmmaker who can turn his hand to just about anything.

(Dir: Steve McQueen, 130 mins, UK Release: November 6)

BFI London Film Festival 2018
BFI London Film Festival 2018

Are you excited to see what Steve McQueen has done with Widows? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section and make sure you keep coming back for the next few weeks for reviews of all of the best movies from the BFI London Film Festival 2018.

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