It’s tempting to suggest that the history of Chicago is analogous to the history of America, just as it is equally enticing to draw such broad comparisons between this country and any major American metropolis with a distinctive local identity. With any case, there will always be easy imperfections in making such statements, noticeable to anyone in spite of varying perspectives of the U.S.’s current and former identities, though with Chicago, there’s a decent case to be made stronger than most, comparable to a heavily mythologized, dense population center like New York City. Partially, America’s history is one of fighting against tyranny, can-do attitudes and the oft-cited cultural melting pot, and while these represent a more positive projection of American culture based in reality, it’s also a history of rampant racism and discrimination of all flavors, land theft and general political and economic corruption long sustained to the point of somewhat undermining our pride for the whole ‘fighting against tyranny’ thing.
From an outsider’s perspective, Chicago is no stranger to these qualities, imparting its own spin on these phenomena, particularly in the pride it emanates for being the ‘City of Broad Shoulders,’ of electric blues being one of the key foundations for rock ‘n roll and for truly showing the positive impact diversity and multiculturalism can propel in forming a city’s identity, for starters, but also the shame it can’t ignore from police brutality, to gentrification and displacement, economic disparity, violence and a healthy dose of WASP-y nepotism adulterating its local politics. Chicago is widely and rightfully regarded as one of the great American cities, setting the standard other places must inevitably measure themselves against, but that reputation doesn’t – and shouldn’t – overshadow how its various problems have long intertwined and contributed to the suppression of voices, communities and peoples.
This is why films taking place in and ultimately being about Chi-town practically require a limited focus, because tying all of these facets together and mining for their respective nuances while crafting a compulsively watchable narrative is next to impossible, and might even be so for a filmmaker who knows the area like the back of their hand. Then again, there have hardly been any films outside of Spike Lee’s controversial Chi-Raq and the aptly titled Chicago that have even attempted to dig deep into one or a few of its various issues and complexities, and perhaps surprisingly, it took a Brit to appraise seemingly each and every major hot-button issue relevant to the city while providing the necessary drama and popcorn entertainment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that very Brit is ever-rising auteur Steve McQueen.
Basing his latest film upon a 1980’s British television crime drama, McQueen has described Widows as his passion project, and merely given the sheer assemblage of actors collected for various roles, it’s safe to say it is certainly the sort of project that, for wary studio executives, would have required a fair amount of notoriety and reputable skill from prior experience on the director’s part. No one gets to simply jump-start their career with a film like Widows, and as someone who’s waited decades for this opportunity, McQueen wastes no time diving headfirst not only into the narrative crux, in which a group of widows plan to finish the botched high-stakes robbery that killed their husbands, but also the peripheral thematic meat, ranging from racism to sexism, family political dynasties, gangs, violence and blatant corruption. By engaging in all of these topics, McQueen not only declares Widows a truly Chicago film, but also once again boldly demonstrates the same lack of fear and inhibition that has aided his quests for thematic density in previous projects.
Such boldness doesn’t disguise any arrogance, as merely based upon his filmography and storytelling pursuits even here, McQueen exudes a deft balance of humility and inquisitiveness, and as a filmmaker it is one of his most admirable qualities, though at times during this production, one wonders if McQueen and even co-writer Gillian Flynn’s collective eyes were larger than both of their stomachs. Widows is the sort of film you wish were longer not necessarily because a combination of snappy pacing, solidly executed direction and excellent performances craft a gripping narrative – though all of these factors are certainly the case here – but rather because it hardly leaves itself enough breathing space to effectively grapple with every theme imbuing its narrative drama. Though this film is certainly able to present and build the foundations for a meaningful discussion on each topic and how they irrevocably influence one another to the point of exacerbating one another and continuing decades, centuries of strife and division, you can’t escape the occasional feeling that a deeper dialogue is being understandably forgone for the sake of narrative expediency.
This isn’t necessarily the biggest issue considering, in part, the expectation of extracting meaningful substance from casting this wide a net being counterintuitively low, but also because of how McQueen and Flynn structure their story, focusing on the heist and the women conducting it comparatively less with the rest of the feature, though the total focus upon it is quantitatively parallel to its other side plots. In addition to Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki’s individual and collective struggles as the aforementioned widows, there’s a major election for alderman of Chicago’s 18th ward between Colin Farrell’s Jack Mulligan and Brian Tyree Henry’s Jamal Manning, ultimately splitting the two’s campaigns into separate stories of their own, as Jack struggles to keep the 18th ward in the Mulligan family and Jamal’s struggles with expanding his power while his enforcer brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), shakes down various persons to stop the widows. At the very least, though this structure has its noticeable drawbacks, it’s the foreseeable ways in which the film deviates from the normal heist movie trappings that keeps it so intriguing, even when that means somewhat undercutting integral character definition.
Undoubtedly, the characters themselves and the respective roles they play within this complex web are fascinating, but with such dedication to crafting and maintaining these intricacies, it shouldn’t be any surprise when some protagonists or antagonists seemingly fall short of a layered complexion. The three main widows are particularly engaging for their varying pushes and pulls between mourning and starting anew, staying fresh amidst partially familiar arcs, but others feel more one-dimensional than was perhaps intended for them. It works for some characters like Kaluuya’s Jatemme, wholly proving Kaluuya’s stunning range and representing an effective example for why nearly every dramatic film of this sort needs an irredeemable antagonist to implicitly highlight other villains’ potential complexities and empathetic qualities, and maybe even Farrell’s Mulligan as a modern symbol for everything the film philosophically criticizes, but characters such as Cynthia Erivo’s Belle and Henry’s Jamal feel like missed opportunities. Not enough is done to demonstrate or underscore Belle’s different motives for joining the widows’ operation to add a fuller sense of depth, and though we can sense an attempt toward such for Jamal, it isn’t enough to effectively set himself apart from his brother as an antagonist, particularly when the film might benefit from him being his own variation of Erik Killmonger.
But what keeps all of this back and forth between technical prowess and seemingly biological, inevitable deficiencies in the narrative’s DNA so consistently compelling is something that has aided McQueen throughout his previous directorial efforts just as it has with many other filmmakers, and which may sound like a cliché cop-out, is his commitment to humanity. Moot point may not even scratch the surface to digest and internalize how that reads considering that’s what most, if not all good and great dramatic features require to keep theater patrons from checking their phones halfway through – hopefully on silent – but it’s worth pointing out in a flick this ideologically dense. Without careful attention to detail, a film that tries to be about as much as Widows can occasionally turn its protagonists into unintentional mouth pieces proselytizing about [insert random example of philosophy here] in the same overly obvious manner as an exposition dump, and while that likely wasn’t something we needed to worry about with McQueen and even Flynn, it isn’t any less heartwarming when a film effectively uses narrative, editing and circumstance among other facets to express an idea or emotion without letting its intellectual inspirations override the storytelling.
Just in case I needed to make it clearer given the consistent back and forth of criticisms and praises this review’s structure has laid out, I enjoyed Widows very much, just as I’ve happily basked in McQueen’s directorial expertise since Hunger. For ample, and amply justified reason, I beamed a year ago about this film having the best ensemble of any from 2018, and it’s even clearer now that I had more reason to celebrate than just the premise of the casting directors ably performing their job, truthfully encapsulating the city of Chicago in filmic form few others have even attempted. The Second City may not look particularly flattering here as it has in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and maybe even High Fidelity, but its open wounds were ones needing further exposing – after all, most of them are already evident in every other bustling metropolis, and those few unique to it are an inseparable part of its character and thus its people. Some alderman most equivalent to Jack Mulligan and his father may not agree – not that their potential thoughts have been made nationally known – but Widows does Chicagoans proud.