When Harry’s crew are consumed by flames – speeding vehicles, sharp turns – Veronica inherits more than her husband’s luxury apartment. She’s heir, too, to his criminal lifestyle: first, she finds a notebook that details the plan for what would have been his next heist; then a two-million-dollar debt owed to gangster-turning-politician, Jamal Manning, finds her. Jamal dangles Veronica’s dog from its collar by way of a threat, and gives her two weeks to come up with the cash. What would you do?
The Troubled Time Signature of Steve McQueen's Widows
We open with a god’s eye view of a kiss shared between Veronica and Harry Rawlings, lying on their marital bed. This kiss has enough tongue to produce an uncomfortable titter from the audience in the Odeon. Before the laughter dies, smash cut to a getaway van careening around a corner, one of its back doors flying off as it’s swerved around by a police car.
Cut to a different couple. Another kiss.
Back to the screech of tires.
The first minute of Widows establishes two competing tempos: there’s the dirge movement of the kiss you didn’t know was a last goodbye, and the whiplash of a botched heist. In this uncomfortable time signature, we will learn to count two rhythms at once; we will see how the criminal crashes into the domestic. How grief is a thing with car chases.
When Harry’s crew are consumed by flames – speeding vehicles, sharp turns – Veronica inherits more than her husband’s luxury apartment.
Well, Veronica enlists the help of two other widows, Linda and Alice, whose husbands died along with her Harry. All three women are isolated; loved and left behind by complicated, morally grey men, they’ve each built walls of distrust around themselves and the lives they have so recently had to renounce. This dynamic makes for a complex kind of sisterhood to say the least – but it’s a strong bond, built on mutual understanding. Veronica first broaches the subject of the heist (her way out of debt, theirs back to self-sufficiency) at a sauna; when a stranger walks in, she pours water on the hot coals. Steam. The stranger leaves, and the widows stay to sweat together. These women can handle the heat; what about the men who think they’re calling the shots? While the widows plan their first and last criminal endeavour, an election race is raging. Gangster Jamal is facing off against one Jack Mulligan, a man desperate to continue his family’s political dynasty no matter the cost. After all, here and elsewhere, it’s politics where the real crimes are committed — and so the scene is set.
Widows is a heist thriller, and a Steve McQueen film. The two descriptors might seem to contradict each other, but they both come with caveats: each with a difference. What announces a departure from either form is the pace of the other. So: a heist movie, we have learnt, delivers quick cuts to emulate the fraught and frantic business of planning and carrying out a plot against the clock. At the other end of the register sits the ‘genre’ of Steve McQueen Film. His oeuvre is arguably defined by a ruthless patience, by the static camera which oversees distressing events with steadfastness and dignity. It’s a motionless, lingering gaze that asks us to attend to the physical reality of, say, a slave hanging from a tree (12 Years) or Bobby Sand’s emaciated body (Hunger). Under McQueen’s spell, we’re just as subject to the reality of A Moment as his characters – what happens, then, when these characters are moving at a mile a minute? When abjection and action collide?
Strange, sad. Lingering, and hard to watch: stop and smell the funeral wreaths.
In Widows, these two visual tempos run alongside each other: one the fast-paced, quick-cutting, well-oiled machine of a caper film; the other, slow and immersive postcards of suffering. Narrative tension is augmented by an aesthetic friction; in a particularly pertinent scene, one of the widows (Linda Perelli) needs to find out which building a set of blueprints refers to. Pretending to be new at a construction firm and on a house-call, she is invited into the relevant architect’s home by her husband – only to discover that the architect is 4 months dead. Her ignorance, referring to the wife/architect in the present tense, outs her as a fraud – but until the revelation, Linda has displayed the unusual cleverness and audacity of a protagonist in a thriller flick; the preternatural quick-thinking of someone who must execute her part of a plan in the most trying of circumstances. Pace-wise, it should be time for Linda to come up with the goods – instead, she freezes.
A deer in headlights, she blurts out a confession, widow to widower, that she is not who she says she is. That her husband died very recently. The mood shifts from anger to a strange companionship, a shared grief, together and separate. The camera holds the pair on the sofa, sitting with them to drink in a moment of mournful connection. They press their foreheads together, kiss, pull apart. Strange, sad. Lingering, and hard to watch: stop and smell the funeral wreaths. Linda apologises and leaves, and our reprieve comes with her.
Hear the name Steve McQueen, and expect to take a hard look at what’s hardest to look at; to stare unflinching at Linda’s, Alice’s, Veronica’s emotional struggle after losing a husband. Hear ‘heist’, and anticipate the opposite — there’s no time for mourning, as characters are propelled forward by more pressing and immediate demands on their time and our focus. Either set up is urgent (the former, emotional, and the latter, plot-driven) but Widows is both at once.
Where Shame gave us a two-minute Steadicam shot on a stressed and frustrated Brandon jogging through frosty New York streets – an impressionistic segue into his intensity and aggression, melting into the night – a comparable shot from Widows gives us hardened single mother, Belle, heckled by men in urban shadows, running at full pelt to catch a bus that she MUST NOT MISS. Speeding, slowing, stopping, starting and staring, McQueen’s latest film sketches a portrait of grief set to the curious metronome of a heist thriller, wherein quick cuts are employed less to raise tension than to remind us of lives cut short. The emotional disjunct of loss rhymes with the cinematography’s freneticism, but most urgent here is the oldest question of all: eat, or be eaten? The odds are stacked against you. No-one thinks you’ve got the balls to pull this off. Well, guess what? Double time, now.
By Sammi Gale.