In Widows, director Steve McQueen is mining relatively fresh territory for himself in the film’s female-rooted narrative. Though he has never disregarded women’s experiences in his work, they have not – until now – been his primary focus. For McQueen, his three-film catalogue so far stands as an interrogation of masculinity, and an often harrowing portrait of what can happen when men are pushed to extremes.
These extremes – unlike the action-hero paragon whose worst day pushes him to acts of vengeful and redemptive violence – don’t serve to provide catharsis or wish fulfilment by any stretch. A McQueen hero is not akin to the man’s man portrayed by the director’s namesake. He’s a man saturated in binary gender preconceptions and split open by pressures physical and psychological, until his root nature is left ragged and exposed like an open nerve.
Hunger, McQueen’s debut, is brutal in the physical honesty of its execution, portraying the imprisoned IRA volunteers who engaged in a degrading hunger strike and no-wash protest to win back their rights as political prisoners. Centring on Bobby Sands – Michael Fassbender, just beginning to cultivate a career as a dark, moody heartthrob – McQueen refuses to flinch on the men’s bodily deterioration and how it withers their mental resolve.
Strapping lads marched defiantly, cockily into the prison refusing to wear official uniforms are quickly worn down into rasping, desperate husks. They push ahead, out of a mixture of national pride and macho bravado that appears on the surface increasingly pathetic. With a camera that lingers and a liberal refusal to cut away, McQueen realises these men’s stories without metaphor or allusion – just bare and distressing truth.
Fassbender himself is the vocal avatar for this struggle. His stunning one-shot dialogue with Liam Cunningham’s visiting Catholic priest is an externalisation of the mental tumult that weighs down Sands and his comrades. Unwaveringly convicted, Sands talks steadily through his justification and his staunch belief that his penance will lead to salvation. His ultimate demise is then shockingly rendered through astonishing visual effects which show an emaciated and sore-ridden Sands literally unable to stand on his own two feet.
It takes a confrontation with an Ulster prison guard for Sands to find even a modicum of his former physical strength, but even then it’s not enough. His body soon succumbs and he dies in a prison hospital before his trial bears fruit.
There’s a twisted nobility to what happens to Sands, which is also true of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man in 1841 kidnapped into slavery and brought low by humiliation and abuse in 12 Years a Slave. Northup’s own trial is laid out by McQueen in similar fashion to Sands’ – unflinchingly and mercilessly. A particular long take of Ejiofor’s spasming, struggling body as Northup fights to survive a rudimentary lynching sears itself onto the brain permanently.
While Northup is beaten and derided, his own injuries don’t present physically in the same way as Sands’. For Northup, his manhood – defined by the esteem of his station and the love of his family – is shed in the mind rather than the body. He is forced to oblige his masters to the point where he comes close to forgetting his former life and, in one moment of anguish and deep sorrow, he seeks sexual comfort with a fellow slave – betraying the principles by which in better times he defined himself.
His eventual recovery and return to his family is bittersweet – and his humble apology for his absence to a family forced to go on without him is at once a heartrending indictment of his eviscerated sense of self-worth, as well as a glimmer of promise that he might restore to himself the genteel, proper sense of upstanding he once bolstered his identity with.
It’s in Shame – arguably McQueen’s masterpiece so far – that the director abandons the nobility of cause or the stoic sense of self that props up his other two protagonists. As the middle portion of this unofficial trilogy, it is the one most abjectly without hope. In their second collaboration, he once again turns his eye to Fassbender, this time as a New York executive playboy drowning under the weight of a compulsive sex addiction.
Also a visual artist, Shame is where McQueen allows that side of himself free reign, and Brandon’s psyche spills out onto the canvas in a style just as gruelling as either other film, but rendered more impressionistically.
Brandon is presented, superficially, as an ideal man. He is resplendent in the cold, modernistic wealth of a corporate high-flier; he is handsome and possesses a magnetism that attracts most women he encounters, and his chiselled body – complete with carved-marble abs and a swinging baseball-bat cock – would be the envy of any man striving for the masculine ideal. But it barely veils a damaged and volatile mind at the mercy of its own vices – a man rendered impotent by his own nature.
Closed off and confrontational to his equally live-wire sister (Carey Mulligan, whose Sissy could fill a movie on her own), Brandon internalises what’s brutalising him, which only leads to it brutalising him even further. His actions spiral outwards – impacting coworkers, friends and potential romantic partners. But Brandon continues his downward trajectory nonetheless.
In a horrifyingly potent climactic sequence, he solicits oral sex from another man in a gay bar – wilfully invalidating his own heteronormative self-perception – before engaging two prostitutes in a threesome that plays out in harsh, abstract, jarring cuts and pulsating flurries of colour and sensation. Through it all, Brandon is numb, but McQueen traps us in this prison with him.
The modernity of Shame is possibly what sets its realisation of the male experience apart from McQueen’s other features. Framed in the context of history, it’s possible to see how typically male patterns of behaviour could be something to be sanctified or admired, and to understand the trauma of seeing them stripped away by circumstance.
Brandon, on the other hand, has no external circumstance to blame. He’s riddled with an unseen disease, and the masculine ideals that manifested to plague Northup and Sands in their darkest moments are here ingrained by the culture and chaos of the 21st century. When maleness is confronted by physical challenges, its nature is to rise and overcome. But when faced with itself, and forced to question its own validity, it can cannibalise itself when it should be reaching out to a world ready to help it – like the friends and family Brandon turns away.
Across three films, McQueen digs deep into the implications of masculinity as a construct – the ideas men have about themselves, where they come from, and what happens when they are taken away. He stares at the toxicity of this construct without blinking, perhaps seeing its influence on his own life and the expectations it’s set on him, too. Through his work, it’s clear he’s tapped into something fundamental about what it really means to be male – the damaging mixture of burdens and privileges that brings. The incisive power of McQueen’s work is clear, and it’s why we will long remain haunted by these desperate men.