Any conversation about the director Steve McQueen will involve his long shots. It’s impossible to think of Hunger without remembering Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham just chatting for 17 minutes, in an unbroken medium-long profile shot (though in fairness, it’s a full fifth of the film’s runtime). Part of 12 Years a Slave’s huge impact, meanwhile, is in that remarkable shot of Chiwetel Ejiofor hanging from a tree, trying to remain balanced. It feels like the film’s entire project distilled into one frame: long, uncomfortable, completely real – confrontational. You see? I’m already banging on about these two much-discussed shots as if it’s the first time.
This year, McQueen has ventured into thriller filmmaking with Widows, a sprawling and emotional heist flick we’re all (with good reason) going crazy over. His sense of psychological intimacy has expanded a bit, into a sizeable ensemble cast, but his skill for conspicuous shot choices is right there in one composition plenty of reviewers have picked up on.
To explain: after a public appearance for his dubious, disingenuous “Minority Women Owned Work” program, local political scion Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) avoids a journalist’s tough questions, gives some harangued soundbites, and dives into his car with his PA (Molly Kunz). McQueen then cuts; the camera is now placed on the front of the car, looking back at the windscreen (in the lower-right half of the frame) and the Chicago background (upper-left; the edge of the car bisects the frame diagonally. Boy, I wish I could find a screenshot to make this easier).
The car starts off, and though we can’t see inside we do get to watch the neighbourhood go by: sparse concrete buildings, grass in the sidewalk cracks. We listen to Farrell and Kunz discuss, then argue about, his campaign. The shot, and the conversation, play out in real time as the backdrop slowly gets a little cleaner-looking. Eventually, the car turns a corner and the camera pans right, resting on the opposite side of the car for a matching composition. This time, the background is distinctly affluent. McQueen, we see what you did there. And all it took was a single turn down a particular road. It’s the film’s most succinct summary of Chicagoan, and American, socioeconomics.
The shot itself is absolutely on-point: composition is minimalist, with the moving background telling an entire story. In that sense it’s pure cinema. No sound is necessary; it has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the story conveyed by this is perhaps central to the film’s whole. The elegance on display is impossible to overstate. And it gets better when we remind ourselves Widows is a $40m thriller on wide release; McQueen and DoP Sean Bobbitt have deliberately interrupted their big American thriller with a formally radical moment. So much of the film creates tension through the expected thriller playbook: functional, demonstrative shots. This is just flamboyant – and an incredibly smart statement.
There is a fundamental problem though: this shot doesn’t exist in and of itself. It’s actually accompanied, from beginning to end, with the audio from inside the car as Farrell’s character and his assistant argue about politics. Or are they arguing about politics? Is it about his policies, his father’s policies (Robert Duvall plays Mulligan Snr., the incumbent), his philosophies, or something else? I can’t actually remember; this is my point. It definitely gets heated, and there’s definitely a lot going on (in terms of their relationship and the wider social issues McQueen’s dissecting), but I really wasn’t listening – I was watching the damn shot.
I can’t pretend this isn’t my fault, for becoming a distracted viewer; equally, I can’t pretend it’s not McQueen’s fault for being the one distracting me. My mind wasn’t wandering; my mind was drinking in the ostentatious visual while McQueen expected me to listen to this important audio. But then, to what extent did he expect us to listen? As I’ve said, this shot is itself a story, essentially independent of anything being spoken. Widows tends not to develop its characters that much, beyond their positionings in the plot (this is not to say they aren’t all played deeply and believably). I don’t think, therefore, that the dialogue here needs be considered much more than thematic window-dressing. We already understand a lot about Mulligan and what he represents. We probably agree with his assistant, Siobhan, as she takes him down a few pegs. But we get plenty of incisive stuff later, through his interactions with his father. All in all, it doesn’t hurt the film if we’re focusing on the visuals at this point. We can arguably switch off here without missing anything of what McQueen’s trying to say with the Mulligan character. Just spare a thought for co-writer Gillian Flynn, whose dialogue is often worth listening to and here gets buried beneath a bit of presentational dazzle.
At any rate, McQueen proves elsewhere that when his taste for brio lines up with his interest in character, he’s still the best in the business at tastefully showing off. Early on, he uses a Steadicam shot to circle Daniel Kaluuya’s Jatemme, menacing some feckless goons. Round and round it goes, like some Christopher Nolan film, as Kaluuya moves, bobs and drawls in perfect choreography with the motion’s tightening unease. Another moment recalls McQueen’s frequent uses of stillness in Shame, as Viola Davis’ character figures out a shocking development and stands for an uncomfortable length of time debating whether to open a door. (You probably have to be there.) As with so many of McQueen’s still one-shots, it’s this sheer duration that ends up announcing itself; it’s the awareness, out here in the audience, that a certain time has elapsed that ends up inflating the discomfort.
But these – and countless other examples throughout Widows – are more purely about McQueen making us tense. The car shot is him making us think. Perhaps that’s what makes it stand out so weirdly. It’s an important distinction; this sees McQueen announcing the real issues he wants to take in, in a film that’s decidedly anti-thriller at most turns. It’s like all five seasons of The Wire poetically compressed into a couple of minutes, with the director stating on numerous occasions that his vision of Chicago in Widows is supposed to be seen as a microcosm.
Whether or not this is a truly successful moment therefore kinda boils down to how you take the film: has McQueen made a masterpiece of 2018 with his jagged, elliptical, sprawling blend of thrills and thoughts? Or has he just made an interesting pic that doesn’t quite reconcile its many ideas and styles over a two-hour run time? Either way, that contrast he creates is part of the project, and clearly worth celebrating. If Widows – the tale of a single heist with wide-reaching ripples – proves one thing, it’s that often in filmmaking one small idea can have the largest impact.