Review: With "Widows," They Don't Make Them Like They Used To

Cameron Lee ‘20 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Five years since 12 Years a Slave was released, Steve McQueen returns to the big screen with a more commercial effort than his previous works. On the surface, Widows looks like just another gritty crime thriller, but McQueen uses the opportunity that’s been given to him to create a socially and politically conscious film that explores current issues, while at the same time being one of the best-made crime films of the decade.
After their husbands die in a robbery gone wrong, three widows, Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), are forced to undertake a dangerous heist in order to pay back the debt their husbands owed to a crime boss (Brian Tyree Henry). It’s a simple premise; the script was penned by McQueen and Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl and Sharp Objects fame. Flynn’s habit of including instances of dark humor in her stories is present here. It’s also no coincidence that the film is set in Chicago, as Flynn has lived there for a good deal of her life.

Liam Neeson and Viola Davis in Widows. Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.
The script is razor focused; every scene serves its purpose in the larger narrative, the social commentary isn’t shoehorned into the picture – it’s seamlessly woven into the framework. Widows discusses race relations, the disparity between race and class, and corruption yet it never feels preachy. McQueen wants to make a statement yet he fully understands that audiences did not pay to see a message-driven film; they paid to see a heist film. So, McQueen does both; the film moves at an incredible pace similar to classics such as Heat and The Dark Knight.
The cinematography, provided by McQueen’s regular Director of Photography Sean Bobbitt, is crisp and smooth. The camera frequently moves around, a shot may be held for a long period of time to reveal a surprise in the frame. McQueen’s knack for creating seamless long takes returns in full force with one incredible take in a car tracking it’s journey, listening in to an important conversation, and another involving the enforcer Jatemme Manning (Daniel Kaluuya) and some rather unfortunate underlings that must be taught a lesson.
Every single actor featured in this stacked and outstanding cast is firing on all cylinders; Viola Davis delivers an angry, devastating performance that’s some of her best work yet. Michelle Rodriguez gives her best performance in years, as do Liam Neeson and Robert Duvall. Kaluuya is a menacing force of nature in the film. Any scene he appears in is elevated by his presence alone, just like the Joker (Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight. It’s a shame he doesn’t appear in the film more often, but Kaluuya makes the most of his limited screen time to showcase a different and much darker side to his already excellent acting range.
Cynthia Erivo and Michelle Rodriguez in Widows. Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.
Every actor gets their moment to shine as McQueen makes every character feel important no matter how big the part is. The editing by Joe Walker should be commented on for balancing a large number of storylines and characters and making it feel seamless. It is masterful editing by an editor at the top of his game (his last film was Blade Runner 2049). The score by Hans Zimmer is largely subdued, which is rather unusual for a composer known for his bombastic scores. But when the score does kick in it provides plenty of tension to the already tense narrative.
Widows is a film that feels straight out of the 70s, not because of its plot or its style of filmmaking, but because of its balance between thrills and social commentary. Many of that decade’s most well-known films explored complex issues while also being thrilling pieces of cinema. And that’s exactly what McQueen has achieved with Widows. It’s a thrilling piece of filmmaking with something to say about the state of our society. And proves that McQueen can use any genre to get his point of view across while delivering an extremely satisfying film that anyone can enjoy.
Overall Grade: A-
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