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McQueen’s ‘Widows’ makes genre feel fresh

If you haven't yet seen it, you might be interested in the review of the film "Widows" that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Veronica Rawlings is in a bad situation. Still grieving the recent death of her husband, that loss compounding the earlier death of her only son, Veronica finds herself the target of a local drug dealer.

Seems that dealer, who has political ambitions, has been robbed of $2 million. And the guy who stole it was none other than Veronica’s late hubby. But though the robbery was thwarted, the money is still missing. And the dealer is holding Veronica responsible.

She has a month, he tells her, to come up with the cash. Or else.

What’s a poor widow to do? Well, if you’re Veronica – a character co-created by director Steve McQueen and novelist Gillian Flynn and played by that awesome force of cinema, Viola Davis – you don’t just roll over. You take action.

Which in the genre-heavy world of the movie “Widows” means, naturally enough, that you do a heist of your own.

The fact that McQueen is making a genre film should come as a surprise. McQueen is well known for having given us dramatic films involving Irish revolutionaries (2008’s “Hunger”), sexual addiction (2011’s “Shame”) and antebellum evil (2013’s “12 Years a Slave”), the latter of which won a Best Picture Oscar.

What shouldn’t prove surprising is that he’s made such a good genre film. Let’s outline the reasons why.

First, we have the cast. Davis, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar last year for “Fences,” is joined by the likes of Colin Firth, Liam Neeson (as her husband) and the great Robert Duvall. And they are supported by such talented, if lesser known, performers as Elizabeth Debicki, Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya (so effective in Jordan Peele’s 2017 thriller “Get Out”).

Then we have the social/political messaging, which though topical – domestic violence, deadly police methods and the corruption of machine politics – isn’t emphasized so much as brought up as a believable part of the Chicago that serves as these characters’ home.

Finally, we have McQueen’s skills as a filmmaker, which are evident in virtually every scene, from the inventive angles he uses to shoot the action, to the unique sense of pacing and how he ties everything together despite a narrative that plays with chronology as if it were an accordion.

Not that everything he does works. As with pretty much any heist flick – the far more lighthearted “Ocean’s” series, for example – some of the plot devices are too farfetched to believe. Especially when the obligatory twists begin to unfold, not to mention an ending that feels like a cross between wish-fulfillment and something a bit too cleverly elliptical.

But, then, McQueen – and presumably co-screenwriter Flynn – compensate for this lacking by giving each character enough of a back story to make them feel authentic. And authentically desperate enough to embark on such an absurd course of action.

Which makes “Widows” feel less like a departure for McQueen and something that fits right in with his other films. No pure genre director was ever this good at creating a cinema that feel this fresh through every single frame