Widows. 20th Century Fox, 2018, 129 minutes.
Directed by Steve McQueen. Written by Steve McQueen & Gillian Flynn. Shot by Sean Bobbitt. Scored by Hans Zimmer. Edited by Sean Walker. Starring Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Lucas Haas, and Liam Neeson.
Spoilers, if you care about that kinda thing
Widows is an obituary for the Obama era and a plan of attack for this one. It signals its didactic intentions plainly: “She’s from the teacher’s union!” barks Chicago patriarch Robert Duvall at prodigal son Colin Farrell, who’s busy losing an easy election to succeed his father to the city council. “There’s always time for teachers!” Duvall turns to Viola Davis, who’s sizing up Farrell as an ally or a mark, says: “I hope you can teach him better than I did.” She does.
The lesson isn’t spelled out until past the halfway point, when her flashbacked half-black son is pulled over by the cops for a moving violation, rolling past a wall wheatpasted with that familiar “HOPE”, only to be summarily gunned down when he moves the wrong way. The white paterfamilias goes into retreat and the women are left to fend for themselves against a criminal enterprise desperate to go legit, against machine politics that are literally criminal. The system is bankrupt, racist, and rotten to the core.
McQueen and Flynn don’t cheat: solidarity doesn’t come easy. The whole ensemble gets a work out: Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya (still trying to Get Out), and Liam Neeson (playing the mirror-image of his late-career incarnation) all do first rate work. Even Duvall and Farrell get a scene with a couple of the best moments either has committed to film in memory. Davis spends the film exploring the temperatures of steel: from cold and rigid and cutting to molten and buckling under the strain, to tempered and, by the end, just maybe, quenched. She’s both the teacher and the student.
The most conspicuously interesting sequence in the film is something like a shot/reverse shot of the exterior of Farrell’s town car as he gets balled out by his female aide, who’s entirely unimpressed by his professed willingness to walk away from his inheritance, as their ride turns a corner and the ghetto glides seamlessly into the gentrified. Widows is all about how the one relies on the other. We can’t tear down one without dismantling the other. Maybe then, its last shot suggests, we’d have a shot at an ending resembling happiness. Or freedom.