WIDOWS (2018, Steve McQueen)
Every bit the stern, straight-faced visual artist he’s been since before he became a film director, McQueen is the cool, slick ice cube inside a rye old-fashioned heist picture. He even makes sure to turn his villains into philistines. When Manning strolls through a house he points at a random book on a shelf: “I haven’t read that.” Mulligan Sr. calls Jr.’s painting “$50,000 wallpaper.” “It’s art.” “Wallpaper.” And in the movie’s second-best oner (I’ll get to the first in a moment), Daniel Kaluuya’s terrifying hitman asks two victims to start rapping — then McQueen’s camera takes the POV of a spot on a spinning record, as we whirl steadily around in a circle to listen to the raps (a location and image reminiscent of McQueen’s bravura video for Kanye’s “All Day”), before Kaluuya suddenly scratches the record and the camera stops for a bullet to the brain.
Villains equaling philistines is just one of the pet themes McQueen squeezes out of the pulp storyline. He’s also got his mind on class, race, and gender. As for the class, the best oner in the movie follows Colin Farrell’s Mulligan Jr. into his car but the camera stays latched to the hood, as we watch the neighborhood change during the travels from the 18th Ward campaign stop (surrounded by projects) to Mulligan’s beautiful upper class block filled with large, well-kept houses. For comparison, note how terribly Tom McCarthy flubbed this concept in SPOTLIGHT, and how perfectly McQueen executes it here.
Race only became a major theme of McQueen’s since 12 YEARS A SLAVE, but here he weaves it into the fabric of modern Chicago; a tragic backstory for the Rawlings tells a too-familiar tale of white cops and law-abiding black citizens (and it serves a narrative purpose too — it explains why Veronica won’t go to the cops when Manning threatens her). The Mulligans are so casually bigoted that they don’t even notice the offense taken by their own black driver or constituents. And while the gender issues are more obvious, it’s great to see how Cynthia Erivo’s Belle uses her athletic skills (she learned to run by having to race to catch the bus) as a tool to help scout the Mulligan house and eventually pull off the heist.
Hardly a shot or detail goes wasted in this well-oiled piston — even the cute voice-masking toys used by the little kids in act 2 play a key role in the act 3 heist. That doesn’t mean it all works, though: Michelle Rodriguez’s limited talents are acted off the screen by the towering work of Davis, Erivo, and Debicki. Debicki’s relationship with Lukas Haas’s David feels like a story that could have been its own movie (if Gillian Flynn really wanted to flesh it out) or part of Carey Mulligan’s arc in SHAME. But here it’s almost a blister on the skin. Still, this is the rare studio entertainment to drive right up the middle with fierce, grave, devastating weight to it and a gorgeous eye to guide it home.