After celebrated prestige pictures like Shame and 12 Years a Slave, you’d be forgiven for expecting something less disreputable from Steve McQueen than Widows. But McQueen’s normal tendencies toward making “important” work (not to mention his gorgeous, tactile images) add essential texture to what’s basically a rambunctious exploitation movie dressed up in classier clothing. The action kicks off after Harry (Liam Neeson) and his thief club get blown up by the cops. Harry’s wife, Veronica (Viola Davis), teams up with the rest of the crew’s widows to take down Harry’s last score in order to settle his (and now their) debt, and get out of the bad graces of some other guys (led by Atlanta‘s Brian Tyree Henry and Get Out‘s Daniel Kaluuya). What starts out as a simple thriller with inflections of standard Hollywood go-girl feminism, though, slowly begins to take on greater dimension, as the story grows to encompass ideas like class stratification, police violence, and political corruption.
While it’s hard to imagine that nods to Black Lives Matter or gentrification or graft were quite as front-loaded in the script as McQueen presents them here, it’s also worth remembering that this approach is not that different from the sort of thing Pam Grier would have starred in for Jack Hill in the ’70s.
None of this could really be called subtext; McQueen can’t resist foregrounding his themes. But the presentation here is so tantalizingly pretentious that, at one point, McQueen places an argument between a politician (Colin Farrell) and his aide offscreen while we watch the car that they’re traveling in — in an unbroken take — drive from an economically depressed Chicago slum to a ritzy old-money neighborhood, all in the space of about two minutes. It’s impossible not to notice the point, but that’s also the charm: Widows is basically presented as pulp by thriller-writer-of-the-moment Gillian Flynn, who adapted her script from an early ’80s British TV show, and who’s known for her blunt treatment of timely themes (see also Sharp Objects). While it’s hard to imagine that nods to Black Lives Matter or gentrification or graft were quite as front-loaded in her script as McQueen presents them here, it’s also worth remembering that this approach is not that different from the sort of thing Pam Grier would have starred in for Jack Hill in the ’70s — a glitzy action movie with a bunch of hot-button issues layered into the plot. Hill’s Coffy involves volatile sisterhood, scamming local politicians, colorful gangsters, unfaithful and abusive men, and dirty cops. The only real difference between the two can be chalked up to McQueen’s aspirations of respectability, but either way this is still a total blast.