The new heist thriller “Widows” takes place in Chicago, where it was filmed. But you know what? You never get a shot of the Bean, the Millennium Park sculpture formally known as Cloud Gate. You don’t see any of the usual tourist destinations.
Rather, “Widows” is set against vivid corners of Hyde Park, Garfield Park, Englewood and Lawndale, as well as shadowy interiors inhabited by members of the corrupt ruling class. At one point Colin Farrell, who plays the weaselly heir to papa Robert Duvall’s political fiefdom, has a tense drink with some smiling adversaries – one of whom, Farrell notes, needs money because he has a couple of kids enrolled at the Latin School. The conversation in question, full of fast, murmuring zingers, takes place in the dark, swank lobby of the downtown Chicago Athletic Association hotel.
You do glimpse a bit of Lake Michigan from the lakeside condo owned by the main character, Veronica, a Chicago Teachers Union administrator turned reluctant but highly capable criminal mastermind played by Viola Davis.
But only a bit.
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Director Steve McQueen’s first feature since winning the Academy Award for “12 Years a Slave,” “Widows” mines Chicago’s tribal conflicts, combative wards (the 18th on the Southwest Side, to be specific, though this is fiction, not fact) and mythic underworld history for more than mere background. The film braids several sets of characters together: black, white, working class, leisure class, unscrupulous and … more unscrupulous. Or murderous.
“Once we knew we were setting it here, we wanted to touch on as many elements of the city as we could without overpacking it,” says screenwriter Gillian Flynn, who grew up in Kansas City. Now a Chicago resident, she is best known for her novels “Gone Girl” and “Sharp Objects.”
“Steve and I interviewed so many people to get to know Chicago, everyone from FBI agents to ex-cons. After a while we were, like, ‘Why isn’t this a miniseries?’ But you can’t get into race in Chicago without getting into politics. And the way they’re entwined turned out to be our friend in storytelling.”
The new “Widows,” which opened Friday, isn’t a miniseries, but the 1983 original one was: a six-hour Thames Television project by crime writer Lynda La Plante, who went on to even greater success with “Prime Suspect.”
“What I loved about the original,” McQueen says, “was the essence of the story – these men, criminals, who die attempting a heist, leaving their survivors to take the reins and plan the next heist. Everything else about the miniseries was up for grabs and, eventually, steeped in Chicago.”
McQueen, Flynn and Viola Davis, among others connected with “Widows,” convened one Sunday last month at the riverfront establishment Porter Kitchen & Deck. “Widows” played the Chicago International Film Festival the previous evening; the national press junket for “Widows” convened in town that same weekend.
With McQueen, Flynn ended up writing the bulk of “Widows” at the same time she was adapting her novel “Sharp Objects” for the recent HBO miniseries. The two projects also ended up filming on overlapping schedules.
The question of tone loomed large over “Widows,” she says. Flynn and McQueen went back and forth about how “violent, how dark, how nasty the story was going to get. Was it a zero-redemption story? Does everybody lose? All I knew at the beginning was I didn’t want to be, you know, the adorable lady screenwriter and write these wacky ladies and their crazy caper.” No “Ocean’s 8,” in other words. But nothing too grueling, either, though McQueen and Flynn and the actors lend unexpected emotional gravity at key junctures of a very tricky plot.
McQueen is a Londoner by birth, and of Grenadian and Trinidadian descent. He now makes his primary home in Amsterdam, with his longtime partner, Dutch journalist, critic and cultural historian Bianca Stigter, and their children.
The couple first visited Chicago during the 1996 Democratic National Convention. Stigter covered it; McQueen, who has worked extensively in video, visual and installation art as well as film, had a show up at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Like Flynn, McQueen adored the “Widows” research phase, “talking to politicians off-record, religious leaders off-record, private investigators … the soil here in Chicago is so incredible. If I were a novelist I wouldn’t live anywhere else. It’s all here. Race. Politics. Corruption. Within 15 minutes from here, right here, you can find some of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States and some of the richest neighborhoods in the United States. It’s just such a … heightened contemporary city.”
Don’t get him wrong, McQueen adds, quickly: “I love the city. And culturally it’s incredible. But the city’s catchphrase, at least for me, is: ‘I got a guy.’ If you can get away with it, you can get away with it. It’s kind of endearing. But when it goes too far, it tears the fabric of the city a little bit more.”
The “Widows” screenplay, Davis says, unfolds “in a place that’s racially divided, with criminality at a boiling point – yet the city is this beautiful, rich cultural mix.” Flynn wrote Davis’ role as race-neutral, though in Hollywood that tends to mean “race: white.”
“If I had turned it down, it would’ve gone to a Caucasian actress,” Davis says. “And that’s a larger conversation, beginning with the word ‘why?’”
An Oscar winner for “Fences,” Davis appreciates the multiracial casting of “Widows” as a way of reflecting the city in which it’s set.
“When the movie opens,” she notes, “you see an image you so rarely see in cinema: two people, one black, one white, in bed, kissing. (Liam Neeson plays her husband, Harry, who’s behind the heist in the opening passage.) “He’s not my pimp, he’s not a slave owner, the image isn’t ‘symbolic’ of anything other than two people, in love, in a relationship. If it’s not a big deal, then why haven’t I seen it before?”
To be clear, McQueen had no polemic in mind when making “Widows,” which creates a darkly compelling mosaic of a multidirectionally corrupt city. It’s pulp fiction, albeit one with an unusual (and, I think, effective) focus on what the Davis character has endured emotionally, even before the plot developments and zigzags commence.
Some critics have scoffed at McQueen for lowering his artistic sights with a genre picture, after the arresting historical saga “12 Years a Slave.”
“Slumming in pulp?” he asks. “I think it’s about raising my game! I don’t want to just preach to the converted as a filmmaker. I want to reach a broader, wider public. And it’s so hard to make a film like this.” If it were easy, he says, classics such as “The Godfather” or “Chinatown” would be a dime a dozen.
“Widows,” says Davis, benefited from McQueen’s collaborative instincts and his generosity as an artist. “He’s why I did the movie,” she says. “We had several weeks of rehearsal, and we hashed out the parts (of the script) that didn’t quite ring true. Some things he was willing to change, some things he wasn’t, but he was always willing to listen.”
The result? “Widows” may not be what audiences expect, and 20th Century Fox was plainly uncertain as to how to package it and get ’em in opening weekend. McQueen remained hopeful.
“People are hungry for things they didn’t know they wanted,” he says. Just as he says it, the director looks at the restaurant window at the south branch of the Chicago River. A Hindu wedding party, in full swing, glides by on a rented boat, heading toward the Jackson Street bridge.
“Look! There you have it!” McQueen says, grinning. “That’s Chicago, right there.”