At Toronto, Steve McQueen's 'Widows' blurs genre and politics into a corrosive cocktail

Michelle Rodriguez, from left, Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki star in "Widows."

The 2018 Toronto International Film Festival is underway (Sept. 6-16), and L.A. Times critic Justin Chang is there on the ground, seeing as many movies as possible and keeping a day-by-day, film-by-film diary. This is one in a series of entries spanning from Day 1 to closing night. For more entries and reviews, click here.

The British director Steve McQueen is both a master formalist and a gifted connoisseur of human suffering. Whatever you may think of his films “Hunger” (2008), “Shame” (2011) and “12 Years a Slave” (2013) individually, it’s hard not to appreciate them collectively as a trilogy on the body and soul in states of extremis, on the ways a human being can be abused, imprisoned and driven beyond the point of despair.

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If McQueen’s compassion has often felt checked by a degree of sadism, it may stem from the severity of his visual style, a diamond-hard aesthetic of precisely framed compositions that has the curious effect of both exalting and mocking his characters’ suffering. There’s great beauty in his filmmaking, but the director made sure that his audiences and his characters pay a steep price for every last drop of it.

The importance of paying one’s debts, even the ones you didn’t ask for, is the driving force behind McQueen’s gripping, corrosive and superbly acted new heist movie, “Widows,” which had its world premiere Saturday night at the Toronto International Film Festival. After the sobering dramatic rigors of his Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave,” McQueen’s first out-and-out thriller — you could even call it his first out-and-out entertainment — feels like a departure in many respects, though it might be better understood as a progression.

His technique remains as exacting as ever, but it has also become less austere, less distanced, warmer to the touch. The telltale sadism has been sneakily channeled into a diabolically twisty and well-oiled narrative machinery. (McQueen and Gillian Flynn, of “Gone Girl” and “Sharp Objects” fame, adapted the screenplay from Lynda La Plante’s 1980s British TV series of the same title.) But the most significant difference isn’t a stylistic one. For the first time, McQueen has chosen to focus on a female protagonist — three, in fact — in a picture whose every convolution unfolds with an extraordinary sense of political purpose.

Three Chicago women — Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) — find themselves in dire straits after their husbands are killed while committing a very high-stakes robbery. Through a series of tightly coiled revelations that are doled out with great cunning and calculation, Veronica obtains access to the notebooks left behind by her late spouse, Harry (Liam Neeson), and joins forces with Linda and Alice to pull off an even bigger job and effectively finish what their husbands started.

For these very different women, everything is at stake: freedom, survival and, yes, revenge, as much against the men who abandoned them to their plight as against the rotten system that created it in the first place. Among other things, “Widows” is a blisteringly cynical snapshot of a Chicago electoral campaign, where neither the slick incumbent’s son (Colin Farrell) nor the potentially groundbreaking African American candidate (Brian Tyree Henry) turns out to be a scrupulous or inspiring choice. Before long the campaign is mired in threats, shakedowns and ferocious acts of violence from both sides, leaving Veronica, Linda and Alice caught in the middle.

In “Widows,” diversity isn’t an opportunity for showy tokenism or liberal pieties. It’s a matter-of-fact reflection of a city’s seething internal dynamics.


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This is, in other words, the trenchant all-female heist picture that “Ocean’s 8,” with all its shallow pleasures, never even aspired to be. In “Widows,” diversity isn’t an opportunity for showy tokenism or liberal pieties. It’s a matter-of-fact reflection of a city’s seething internal dynamics, an opportunity to probe inequities of race, class and gender that few American movies, let alone American genre movies, ever attempt to address. (It’s also a chance to lob some well-aimed jabs at a resurgent culture of white supremacy in 2018 America.)

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There will be much more to say about “Widows” — none of which should give away the story’s sinuous, game-changing surprises — when it’s released Nov. 16 by Fox. But it would be wrong at this stage not to sing the praises of McQueen’s very fine actors, among them Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”), terrifying as a murderous thug; Cynthia Erivo, bracingly spirited as a multitasking single mom who gets recruited as the women’s driver; and Debicki, who gives an especially vivid performance as a woman who loses everything, only to come thrillingly into her own.

Finally, there is Davis, who at this point has exhausted all the superlatives one could lavish on a screen actor of her caliber. Suffice to say that even as the anchor of this lavishly gifted ensemble, her talent for wounded dignity and quiet resilience, her ability to hold a closeup in complete silence, is deployed to unusually piercing, satisfying effect. For much of “Widows” you are watching Davis scheme, strive and connive her way toward an elusive score, but there is never any doubt that she owns this movie from beginning to end.

In "Destroyer," an LAPD detective who’s barely holding it together. (TIFF)

An uncompromisingly fierce female protagonist is also at the heart of Karyn Kusama’s Los Angeles noir “Destroyer,” which is one of 12 films playing in the festival’s breakthrough-oriented Platform competition. Nicole Kidman, another performer with nothing to prove, nonetheless throws herself with attention-grabbing fury into the role of Erin, an LAPD detective who’s now barely holding it together. Kidman famously donned a false nose to play Virginia Woolf in “The Hours,” but here she takes the concept of deglamorization to far showier, grittier extremes: With her sun-baked skin, red-rimmed eyes and hard, dead-eyed stare, she seems intent on making Erin look as dreadful on the outside as she must feel on the inside.

This L.A. noir begins with Erin dragging herself to a crime scene, where the sight of the victim triggers an odd rush of unsettling memories. From there, the movie tracks Erin’s flailing, flagrantly unprofessional investigations while also recounting events from 16 years earlier, specifically a dangerous undercover operation with her old partner (an excellent Sebastian Stan). We can surmise that the job went terribly awry, not only from Erin’s perma-depression — she also has a teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) who can’t stand her — but also from the dour, leaden portentousness of the filmmaking.

Kusama, whose moviemaking career rebounded a few years ago with the terrific horror-thriller “The Invitation,” has a talent for pulse-quickening action that she puts to effective use in more than one set piece. She and Kidman are clearly giving it their all, but I could have frankly done with less: The grim relentlessness with which “Destroyer” seesaws between time frames — as if to make sure that no state of abjection, past or present, goes unexplored — wore me out long before the endlessly protracted finish.

Patricia Clarkson stars as a New Orleans detective investigating the homicide of an astrophysicist in "Out of Blue." (TIFF)

As present-day detective thrillers go, I was rather more taken with Carol Morley’s “Out of Blue,” a beguilingly loopy adaptation of Martin Amis’ 1997 novel, “Night Train.” The ever-reliable Patricia Clarkson stars as Mike Hoolihan, a New Orleans detective investigating the homicide of an astrophysicist (Mamie Gummer) who was found shot to death in her observatory. The victim was known for her pioneering research on black holes, and it takes little time at all for “Out of Blue” to slip into a pleasurably oddball wormhole of its own, as Hoolihan’s investigation leads her through an extended rumination on dark matter, Schrödinger’s cat and other subjects more often entertained in a quantum physics class than in a murder mystery.

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Morley sustains a vibe of low-key Lynchian weirdness throughout, enough to keep your mind from wandering even as the investigation meanders this way and that. And just when you think you’ve seen and heard enough, in step veteran scene stealers like James Caan and especially Jacki Weaver, who has one non sequitur of hilarious, lip-smacking strangeness — a reminder that the comic and the cosmic have a way of going hand-in-hand.

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