Of course, it helps that WIDOWS boasts a phenomenal cast and crew: Gillian Flynn (of Gone Girl fame) cowrote the script with McQueen, while Viola Davis shines as Veronica Rawlings, defacto leader of the titular group. It can be tempting to simply assume sight unseen that Davis will nail any role she’s given, but her reputation is earned from WIDOWS’ first moments. The film opens with a juxtaposition of four criminals’ personal and professional lives, a compelling sequence which culminates in Veronica’s reaction upon learning the crew, including her husband (Liam Neeson), are all presumed dead. Without giving too much away, Davis’ visceral performance in this scene alone is utterly mesmerising. However, WIDOWS is far from a one-woman show; rather, its ensemble feels like a casting director’s dream come true, with each actor given an appropriate showcase. Seriously, you know a film is bursting at the seams with talent when Jacki Weaver and Robert Duvall each have around five minutes of total screen time (although they make the most of these brief appearances, as you’d expect). My personal highlight was Daniel Kaluuya’s turn as the vicious mobster Jatemme, which further proves his breakout role in Get Out was no fluke.
McQueen and Flynn pack WIDOWS’ script with an incredible amount of ideas and largely succeed at balancing these with the tonal demands of an action-thriller. Unsurprisingly, the film has plenty to say about both race and gender, keeping these topics at its forefront throughout; look out for a flashback involving Veronica’s teenage son and prepare to be devastated. Yet as the title should suggest, this is emphatically a film about grief. Veronica, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice’s (Elizabeth Debicki) overwhelming sense of loss extends even to WIDOWS’ technical aspects: shots of them alone are composed with the women off-centre to draw attention to their missing ‘halves’, with McQueen and editor Joe Walker allowing these moments to linger slightly longer than I expected. Some viewers might be disappointed that the actual heist doesn’t occur until the third act, but McQueen’s mastery of suspense makes sure this brilliantly-paced sequence pays off. In fact, I would argue the stakes feel especially high here because of how much time is dedicated to ensuring the widows’ emotions are portrayed honestly. Having characters move between story beats without so much as a pause is basically an action genre trope at this point, which makes WIDOWS feel particularly refreshing in comparison.
I’m sure WIDOWS’ genre-defying approach won’t please everyone; honestly, McQueen’s unusual choice to wait until the final 40-minutes to showcase its thrills leads to the film feeling a little slow at times. However, not only is the action worth the wait, there’s plenty of captivating drama to be found beforehand. Although these elements don’t combine as well as McQueen perhaps intended, it’s incredible that a single film delivers them both so well.