By SARAH-TAI BLACK
Special to The Globe and Mail
Thursday, December 6, 2018
What would it look like if a lauded art-house director with an equally praised contemporary art practice shifted gears and made a bigbudget Hollywood heist thriller?
With Steve McQueen's newest film, Widows, this shakeup is just as good as you would expect.
When I bring up this idea of "A Steve McQueen Blockbuster" to the Oscar-winning director the day after the film's world premiere at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, he is characteristically direct to answer: "I just like the story. I could wake up tomorrow and make a silent movie or a movie set on a desert island. I'm not interested in devices and I don't care about conventions or genres."
For McQueen, the story is one that he says he has held in his heart for 35 years. He cracks a wide grin at me when he says this, confessing that during most of those years he hadn't actually known he wanted to be a filmmaker.
McQueen's Widows was adapted from the 1983 British miniseries of the same name by both the director himself and Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn. "I just love the journey these characters go through," he tells me. I asked a friend of mine who had recently lost her mother how she was feeling and she said 'reckless.' That type of liberation through grief was very interesting to me." In the same vein, watching the show's original run in the 1980s as a 13-year-old black boy in West London, McQueen says that what really made an impression on him was that, much like the show's lead women characters, he was likewise assumed by others to be incapable.
Such people were clearly mistaken. With Widows, McQueen strikes a deft balance between the formal artistry he is known for and the seat-filling demands of a white-knuckle, star-studded action film. The film stars the ever vibrant and ever depthful Viola Davis (an Oscar winner in her own right), alongside Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo and Elizabeth Debicki as a group of women who attempt a highstakes heist to pay back debts left behind by the deaths of their criminal husbands.
The fact that Widows is a woman-led genre picture already makes it an exception to the rule, never mind the film's perceptive awareness of the complexities of race, class and gender that inflect these characters' lives. As I discuss this with McQueen, I can't help but linger over the importance of seeing such atypical characters on screen (and Davis with her natural hair, no less). He's refreshingly straightforward when he tells me, "It's a new age. I think that people want to see themselves reflected when they go to the cinema. I want my movies to reflect the reality that I live in. Nothing is typical. Viola is not a typical Hollywood actress. And nothing should be typical because we as a public aren't typical ourselves."
Electric performances from Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out, Black Panther) and the seemingly unstoppable Brian Tyree Henry (Atlanta, If Beale Street Could Talk) lead the charge of a heavyweight cast that includes Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Jacki Weaver and Robert Duvall. When I ask McQueen how he came to balance the almost obscene range of talent he had on hand for the film, he's quick to respond that that was not his aim in the slightest.
He replies, "I wasn't interested in harmony, I was interested in individuals and what they brought to the role; how they fused, whether that was in a rough or in a smooth way." This disinterest in unity is surely what keeps the film's range of characters so dynamically afloat. Unlike most ensemble cast films, the actors working here have been guided with a sureness that keeps them purposely placed rather than flatly scattered about like Easter eggs for vaguely interested audiences to find and quickly discard.
It's that deliberate organicism of McQueen's vision that allows the city of Chicago to rise to the occasion set by the film's powerhouse bill, becoming almost a secondary cast member in and of itself. "I'm not so much interested in style as I am in location," he says, "I don't try to impose myself on a location. I don't bring a stance with me. I allow it to happen. What was interesting with [shooting in] Chicago was having the freedom of the city. My studio was Chicago and being in it allowed my actors to be sensitive to the environment and able to translate it in the best way possible."
McQueen is enthusiastic about his film's setting in contemporary Chicago - as he should be - and leans forward in his seat as he tells me, "I love the premise of this story, but what was also so important to me was to take that fiction and steep it in the reality of our present and current day." What sets Widows apart from its generic peers is not only its artistry, but its intelligence. "Taking the [original] story away from London and locating it within the politics, the racial tension, the gun crime and the bad policing of a contemporary Western city. I wanted it to reflect that reality; that's what it was about," he says.
Despite his stated indifference to style, Widows has all of the hallmarks of a McQueen film: his artful and attentive privileging of subjectivities; his ability to frame images in such a way as to be counterintuitive to their content; his rhythms and potency in filming scenes of violence, trauma and other internal movements.
As with 12 Years A Slave and Shame, in Widows McQueen foregrounds, with a deeply fair sense of recognition, imbalances of power, both in space and of space, as well as the interconnections of relationships and death. He counters, "It's about what the subject is asking for. The interesting thing about 12 Years A Slave, you know ... people ask me, "How can you portray certain scenes the way you did? Wasn't what was happening there horrible?" But I ask, have you ever been to these locations? They're beautiful. And you know what's so interesting about it? The most horrific things happen in the most beautiful places, and that's what I needed to show."
"I wasn't going to ask my cinematographer to skew the angles, to darken things," he continues, "because that was the reality that people were living in. And the same thing goes for all of my films - if it's a prison cell in Northern Ireland and there's [excrement] on the walls, well then that's it.
That's the texture [of the environment]. I'm not making a horror movie. Especially with Chicago, where we had 60 shooting locations, how you hold up a lens is not innocent. I'm trying to engage the public and tell them a story.
That's what I'm about and that's what I'm trying to do with me and my cinematographer are trying to do with the camera." When I tell McQueen that it's exactly that empathy and humanism that I most like about his films, he nods enthusiastically and says, "It's got to be."
Oscar-winner Viola Davis, left, stars in Widows, the latest film by director Steve McQueen. The pair is seen in October in Chicago, where the film is set. The city was an important part of the story, almost becoming a cast member in and of itself.
WHITTEN SABBATINI/THE NEW YORK TIMES