Cast: Viola Davis, Liam Neeson, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Daniel Kaluuya, Cynthia Erivo. Directed by: Steve McQueen.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that post-Best Picture win a director would want to go off and do something a little easier, maybe a big franchise movie or a light romantic comedy. But Steve McQueen is no normal man, nor is he a director who takes easy options.
A Turner Prize winning artist, McQueen’s previous movies have dealt with the imprisonment and hunger strike of an IRA bomber, the effect of sexual addiction on one man and his relationship with his sister, and the unjust enslavement of a free man for over a decade. Now, rather in keeping with a strange career trajectory, McQueen, along with Gone Girl scribe and adaptor Gillian Flynn, have taken an 80s British ITV miniseries by Lynda La Plante and turned it into the crime drama of the year.
The basic plot follows the same of the series, in which – after a heist gone wrong leaves them in debt – a group of widows must unite to pull off a job and settle the scores for their lives. This time around the film is pitched as a sprawling crime drama ensemble with Viola Davis at the centre holding everything together.
McQueen is no slouch as a storyteller; he might have style to spare but he knows full well how to mount a story that captures our hearts and minds. Viola Davis is a good choice for the central role of Veronica Rawlings, down to the fact that she is one of those actresses that can keep things close to the chest but also manages to have us root for her even as she closes herself off from the other characters.
For those thinking that this is a Flynn and McQueen for hire job, think again. McQueen may be taking a miniseries and making a movie, but this is his movie. The film follows the planning and execution of a robbery, but it also tackles many themes that throw us into a thinking film as well as a popcorn movie. Like back in the 70s, when auteur filmmakers would make blockbusting films with a little bite to them.
The ensemble cast is let loose in a way few big movies allow, but its a good choice when you consider the talent on screen around Davis: Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson, Jon Bernthal and Garret Dillahunt – there is no real supporting actor on show. Davis commands the screen in her performance and the others are all in favour to that. Though Rodriguez manages to give a surprisingly layered performance considering her career of tough girls with no heart.
The underlining themes of political discourse, racial prejudice, and gender politics come together in a way that also help underline the stakes of this film. It helps that the film takes it’s time to make us care for all the characters, the film begins by cutting between the various storylines, making it clear that all of these strands are heading for a collision.
It’s not just a long political drama though, it is at it’s heart a pulse pounding heist film that when it needs to can put you right at it’s core, cutting between relationships and hard action in a way that makes you feel like McQueen was made for action cinema. In the same way he managed to turn a conversation between Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham into a tense exchange of ideas in Hunger, here we find that the unfolding drama of these women making a bid for a better life as the men around them continue to cause issues is as heart racing as the car chases that emphasise the danger.
In that respect, this is absolutely a McQueen film, and one that is very much of the #MeToo era. The film is about men and women, and race – how different races treat each other, how gender affects things. This is a solid first rate crime thriller with a central performance by a woman riding a career-high, who knows exactly what she can do, and with Flynn and McQueen firing on all cylinders. Come awards season it might very well steal multiple honours.