From full-frontal male nudity to unabridged torture scenes, director Steve McQueen has always had a penchant for shocking his audiences. His greatest skill consists of lingering, or even zooming in, on those excruciating moments from which other directors would be inclined to quickly pan away. However, it takes two to tango: such moments require actors proficient enough to handle the stress of McQueen’s persistent lens. “Widows,” his first directorial effort since 2013’s “12 Years a Slave,” which won an Oscar for Best Picture, has many such moments and many such actors.
For example, take one of the film’s shots: following a fatal car crash, a driver sits squashed against the steering wheel as if against a pillow, his eyes bulging and the horn indefinitely whining into the night. Most other directors would skip forward to the plot-specific ramifications of such a crash, but for McQueen, doing so would mean missing out on an unforgettable moment.
Viola Davis, who plays one of the widows, has already received a good deal of Oscar buzz for her starring role and it’s easy to see why; the sheer number of lengthy close-ups she suffers through over the course of the film would cause many other great actors to keel under pressure.
It all reminds me of a critique a New Yorker writer leveled against McQueen some years ago: “[He] assumes that showing scenes in which unpleasant things happen is enough to make a quasi-tragic drama.” Isn’t it, though? If any director can convince me that a good film doesn’t need any substance beyond the aesthetic delivery of unpleasant moments, it’s McQueen.
Perhaps more than any of McQueen’s previous features, “Widows” has a plot to back up its shock value. Or rather, multiple plots. Truth be told, “Widows” really is two films masquerading as one. Taking center stage is the heist thriller, wherein three widows must perform a high-profile robbery planned but never effectuated by their late husbands. In my opinion, the aforementioned is the better of the two plots because the leading ladies are engaging and the thesis is clear: in a world dominated by corrupt and misogynistic men, an independent woman has no alternative but to claw her way to the top if she wants to be successful. Nobody can be trusted and mercy is a hindrance.
The second of the two plots tracks the political race for an alderman seat and is a dismal affair. It relishes its task of peeling back the layers of American politics to reveal each one to be more stygian than the last. To the watcher’s dismay, there are no widows here and no feminine energy to offset the film’s onslaught of cutthroat men. The resulting hopelessness conjures up more comparisons to 1940s film noir than to modern day thrillers. There are no good guys here—only guys, all of whom are bad.
The eponymous protagonists are “Widows’” only wellsprings of hope and such a feminist message is certainly worthy of applause. In the film’s dark and all too realistic world, a man’s hand on a woman’s shoulder is less a caress than a power play, an unfriendly reminder of who’s in charge. The most telling exchange of the entire film comes when one of the widows is out on a date at a nice restaurant with a very wealthy man. Stupefied by his expectation that she’ll repay him for the dinner with sexual favors, she asks, “Is everything a transaction to you?” His response—”That’s the way the world works”—cuts to the core.
To be successful in today’s capitalist society, one must be as avaricious, libidinous, and guarded as the men who rule it. A cynical message to say the least, but there’s a silver lining; perhaps today’s capitalist society isn’t as inexorable as we sometimes make it out to be. Change is possible, and as “Widows” reminds us, it starts with putting more women in power.