Now THIS is how you do an all-female heist movie
After winning an Oscar, indie filmmaker Steve McQueen undertakes his most commercial project with a remake of the 80s Lynda La Plante TV series.Cutting his teeth on a duo of hard-hitting, Michael Fassbender starring, dramas - Hunger, about the horrific 1981 Irish hunger strike; and Shame, about sex addiction - Steve McQueen became the first black filmmaker to win an Academy Award for Best Picture for his third feature, another hard-hitting Michael Fassbender (co-)starring drama, 12 Years a Slave. None of his films are even anywhere near approaching enjoyable, more endurable, and 12 Years a Slave could have more aptly been renamed 'Endurance' to fall in line with his fondness for one-word titles.
Still, if you know McQueen by one film, you know him by all three - deeply bleak, painfully torturous, unbearably raw, and generally rather unpleasant films to watch, even if somewhere inside you know that they are eminently well-made and ostensibly worthy. So, where does remaking an 80s ITV TV show fit in?
Widows feels like the Chicago sister to The Town's Boston brother.
After a heist goes terribly wrong, the four widows left behind are faced with the fact that the powerful gangster who financed the job, now insists that the debt owed by their late husbands has passed to them. With no means of paying it off, the women are compelled to take matters into their own hands and, despite the lack of experience, pick up the reins of their late husbands to undertake a big heist of their very own.
Widows is almost outright excellent. We've seen the Ocean's franchise reborn with an all-female cast - to reasonably enjoyable effect - but this is really how to put an all-female crew on the map. It may not be a Heat contender, but it's not far off Affleck's The Town; a gritty, well-developed heist picture with a group of interesting characters set against a palpable urban landscape that's almost a character of its very own. At times Widows feels like the Chicago sister to The Town's Boston brother.
McQueen kick-starts with a brutal opening sequence, jarring you awake from a tender moment to a blistering heist-gone-wrong chase, before settling into a period of loss, followed by fear. These four women have been left with nothing, and consequently, have nothing to lose. Viola Davis is unsurprisingly formidable in the driving seat, ably supported by Michelle Rodriguez - who, between Fast and Furious sequels, has rarely been given this kind of choice role - and Elizabeth Debicki, who was great in The Night Manager (and underrated in the underrated The Man from Uncle) and also needs more material like this.
And whilst the likes of Colin Farrell and Liam Neeson thrum around in the background, Robert Duvall powerhouses his way through some great lines, and Atlanta's Brian Tyres Henry and Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya vie for the most threatening bully on the block, it's Cynthia Erivo who comes out of nowhere to steal the entire show out from under the feet of both the boys and the girls. Erivo was the standout in the eclectic ensemble piece Bad Times at the El Royale, and is superb here too, tough as nails but still with that vaguest hint of vulnerability around the edges.
McQueen really lets these players shine, turning a glorified 80s crime-flavoured TV soap into something tense, brutal and satisfying.
Novelist Gillian Flynn deserves credit for turning the story around too, having written Gone Girl, and the less well-received Dark Places, as well as the HBO series Sharp Objects, she works wonders with La Plante's distinctly 80s, distinctly TV tale, fashioning it into a proper contender of a heist movie; a film which is arguably only let down by the very TV feel that still creeps in around the edges, badly informing character's motivations, or delivering arguably unnecessary curve-balls when actually there was more than enough backbone to carry the piece through without clever but contrived twists and turns.
It's a familiar cops-and-robbers Heat-style formula, just dressed up in a different outfit - with not only a change-up in terms of sex, but also in terms of the cop pursuit, substituting the threat from law enforcement for a backdrop of slimy politicians and vicious gangsters. This different colour, however, is more than enough to set it apart, affording Widows a fresh take on the formula, and giving McQueen's all-girl crew a great platform upon which to shine.
With keen direction - those familiar with McQueen's Shame will recognise his fondness for reflections out onto the cityscape, and his off-camera shot of the verbal beat-down in the limo is superb (and possibly the biggest "least-fanfare" celebration of female power in the entire movie) - and a great score that cleverly doesn't even come into play until a good halfway through the suitably 'crime epic' runtime, McQueen really lets these players shine, turning a glorified 80s crime-flavoured TV soap into something tense, brutal and satisfying. And something - in a rare and welcome first from the filmmaker - bloody entertaining too.
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