Steve McQueen’s Widows is loud and direct – just take a look at the trailer. Credits drop in time to the haunting Junior Boys remix of Billie Holiday's "Yesterdays". Then Elizabeth Debicki’s bruised face grimaces as she recoils from a man's smug touch; Michelle Rodriguez looks pissed off; Viola Davis deep-screams from the pelvis up. The noise she makes sounds like she might be mid-exorcism, physically pulling pain through and away from her.
This is big-screen McQueen, full of flames and guns and big exploding cars. Colin Farrell and Liam Neeson also star, as do a frankly terrifying Daniel Kaluuya and Brian Tyree Henry (who played Paper Boi in Atlanta). It's very Hollywood, which is not a bad thing. Like 12 Years A Slave, the British director's film will be screening in places where he'll attract an even larger audience; impacting beyond the relatively niche arthouse fanbase of his first two films, Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011).
The story follows the three bereaved leading women as they pay off the $2 million debt left to them by their career criminal husbands. Kaluuya and Tyree Henry’s characters want that money, and they stab and shoot and shove disabled men off their wheelchairs in attempt to get it. Much will be said about how the film reimagines the heist movie, which is true: it does. McQueen’s cast whip an affecting intensity into the genre, in a way that’s entertaining without losing any emotional depth.
This isn't a simple heist movie, though, just as no McQueen film is ever exactly what appears on the tin. Henry and Farrell's characters are running for office, bringing politics into play. In one scene (just one!), McQueen uses his signature long shot to track Farrell's blacked-out car as it moves from the projects to huge, lush mansions in minutes, splitting open the juxtaposition of class and wealth. Issues of racism, nepotism, manipulation, religion are woven in too – a result of McQueen’s direction as much as the source text, an adaption of an 80s British crime drama, co-written by McQueen and novelist and screenwriter Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl).
The most obvious theme, of course, is grief. It's in the film's name. But that grief is told through the wider lens of family and everything that involves – the fear and reality of loss, the knowledge of upset, regrets, lack of respect, the need to love. When Rodriguez's character decides to take part in the heist, it’s because she wants her "kids to know I didn’t just sit there and take it". Through flashbacks, we learn that Davis has already lost her children and that Debicki’s relationship with her mother is fragile, built on toxic childhood neglect.
McQueen presents each woman as resilient, capable of standing up in the face of adversity – cunning and strong. Like the leads in Shame and Hunger, McQueen doesn't present these characters as good or evil. Though they may be weighted in one direction, they’re multifaceted. A great example of this is Lukas Haas’ character, who Debicki meets through a sugar-daddy dating site. Is he manipulative, caring, honest? Who’s to say.
McQueen's other stylistic tropes are on display here, albeit in a less prominent way than before. He's frequently used the body to evoke a visceral reaction – the thinning of Hunger’s protagonist, Fassbender’s wang volleying across his legs in Shame, the vicious welts on the back of Chiwetel Ejiofor's Solomon Northup in 12 Years A Slave. Using the human form to powerful effect is something McQueen’s done since he released one of his first short films, Bear, completed while studying at Goldsmiths, which showed two naked men wrestling and ogling each other. In Widows we get Davis pulling on a cigarette, framed so closely that you can feel the shuddering intensity of each long draw.
It goes without saying that McQueen still directs like an artist, since he is one. He won the Turner Prize in 1999, he's showcased in galleries, he's studied the form. Widows combines this flair with the gripping thrill of a big screen blockbuster, creating loud moments that give way to intense devastation. The cast are great – Kaluuya especially deserves a nod for his sociopathic portrayal. The inclusion of explosions and whatnot will certainly attract new fans who might not have otherwise known McQueen’s work. Beneath the flames, though, is an intricate and detailed story that gets into grief, love and loss, posing as many questions as it does answers, like all good art should.
'Widows' is out on general release in the UK from today, Tuesday the 6th of November.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.