Updated: Feb 12, 2019
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital Copy; 2018; R for violence, profanity throughout, and some sexual content/nudity; streaming via Amazon Video, FandangoNOW, Google Play (4K), iTunes (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)
Best extra: “Widows Unmasked: A Chicago Story” six-part documentary
BEFORE THE cameras started rolling for British director Steve McQueen’s Academy Award winner “12 Years a Slave,” he committed to a new project: An adaptation of a gritty British TV mini-series that aired in 1983.
McQueen was 13-years-old when he first saw “Widows,” written by Lynda La Plante (“Prime Suspect”) about three armed robbers – Harry Rawlins, Terry Miller, and Joe Pirelli – who die nearly at the start when their van explodes inside London’s Kingsway Tunnel. The story follows their widows – Dolly, Shirley, and Linda, plus a fourth woman – who find their husband’s plans for the robbery and decided to stage their own heist.
“I remember seeing it and what it meant to me,” McQueen says in the six-part documentary featured on the enclosed Blu-ray and streaming sites. “Seeing those four women achieve something which people never thought they could,” paralleled his own personal challenges as a young black male filmmaker.
McQueen knew he wanted to work with a female co-writer, who would bring “real tension, and authenticity to the characters,” says Producer Iain Canning. So McQueen recruited Chicago screenwriter Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl,” “Sharp Objects”), who was instantly onboard the caper, now unfolding in the Windy City. It provided a rarity within Hollywood projects, writing an ensemble piece for female leads. Viola Davis stars as Veronica, married to kingpin Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson); Michelle Rodriguez plays Linda, a hustling entrepreneur, who wants to master the quinceañera business – not an easy task after her husband gambled the shop away; and Elizabeth Debicki as Alice, whose abusive husband left her penniless, and whose mother insists she become a high paid escort. A fourth member is called into action; British singer/actress Cynthia Erivo as hairdresser Belle and Linda’s babysitter.
McQueen described his relationship with Flynn, “like two people riffing on guitars writing a song.” He interviewed a number of key Chicago leaders including college professors, police authorities, and criminals to dig into the city’s hottest issues: Race, politics, religion, police, and crime. “I think Chicago is the epicenter of all of that,” says McQueen. Flynn considered her characters, “distinctive, tough, sometimes deeply flawed, and interesting women.”
The director and his longtime cinematographer Sean Bobbitt filmed throughout Chicago at 80-plus locations from its ethnic neighborhoods to a $3 million high-rise condo overlooking Lake Michigan in the opening scene. Then it intercuts to bullets blasting and screaming tires as a $2 million robbery goes wrong. Harry and this gang end up dead in the first five minutes. The loot, stolen from Jamal Manning’s campaign is destroyed. Manning is running for Chicago’s 18th Ward, long controlled by the Mulligan political machine.
McQueen pulled 88-year-old Robert Duvall (“Apocalypse Now,” “The Godfather”) out of semi-retirement to play the aged Tom Mulligan, with Colin Farrell as his ruthless son Jack, who hopes to inherit Dad’s political seat.
Manning, an ex-drug dealer, wants his money back and gives Veronica 30-days to come up with the cash or else. His psycho brother Jatemme, played by Daniel Kaluuya, who received high praise for “Get Out” and “Black Panther,” keeps the pressure on.
McQueen and Bobbitt captured the thrills on 35mm film, which was beautifully scanned and mastered in 4K. The result is evident from the opening frames of the 4K presentation, with controlled natural film grain and an extra level of clarity and sharpness in distant objects. It’s most obvious when Bobbitt mounts a camera on the hood of Jack Mulligan’s limo after he speaks at a campaign rally at a vacant lot. The wide-angle shot covers changing landscapes from blocks of empty lots and low rent apartments, to a vibrant business district, and then to bigger and wealthier homes until it stops at the Mulligan compound. Another visual highlight comes when Jack Mulligan has a private meeting on his yacht, with the city’s skyline in the background.
HDR toning expand the deep blacks with controlled shadows since much of “Widows” was shot at night or inside Harry’s old hangout – an auto repair shop – near an “L” train track, where Veronica and her gang plan their $5 million heist.
The majority of the wider color palette is neutral, with rich saturation and shades of warm tones and shades of cool tones as the environment dictates.
“It was hot, it was frightening. It’s dark, it’s musty. It carries all of the truth and ugliness of what these men were and their camaraderie. And now it becomes our space.” — Viola Davis, describing Harry’s hangout
The 4K disc is the only format to include the enveloping Dolby Atmos eight-channel soundtrack that expands the sound vertically – especially during gun battles, explosions and other effects. Hans Zimmer’s score is full of electronic sound textures, plus several slow-burning jazz tunes like the classic “Wild is the Wind” from Nina Simone, and “The Big Unknown,” a new one from R&B/jazz sensation Sade. McQueen is a huge fan. The Blu-ray is coded with an engaging eight-channel DTS-HD that’s just a half-step below the Atmos track with its soundstage.
Top critics on the Rotten Tomatoes site pushed “Widows” approval rating just over the 85 percent mark, making it a perfect watch for film noir enthusiasts.
There’s little humor, but lots of thrills. Production values – and suspense – run high along with a fine soundtrack as the ladies take over their husbands’ game.
“Once they jump over that fence there’s no option but to succeed,” says actress Elizabeth Debicki. “They are either going to prison or be shot.”
— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer