A “pot boiler” is a work of narrative fiction that an artist makes to provide basic sustenance. Generally, pot boilers are crafted to appeal to mass audiences over any more artistic concerns. Some would argue that almost all movies are pot boilers, and the ones that reach for artistry over audience appeal are the exception, as opposed to the literary or theater worlds, where the term originated and the opposite is true. The cinema has long been considered the most “pop” of art forms, if an art form at all.
So to call a movie a “pot boiler” means something different. Typically, it means the filmmaker behind it is known for putting artistry over popular appeal, and now, in this particular film, they are not doing this. The filmmaker is making a purely entertaining flick. I bristle at the term, because it implies that pop films are without intellectual merit and that artistry isn’t inherently entertaining. All that being said…
Widows is a real pot boiler. Director Steve McQueen’s past films—about an inmate on a hunger strike, a man with a sex addiction, and a historical biopic that won’t let you look away from the horror of slavery—aren’t exactly crowd-pleasers, though they have all been heralded for their artistic achievements. Widows is a straight up heist/revenge flick featuring a cavalcade of famous faces in scenery-chewing roles and more twists than a state fair taffy pulling machine.
The set-up is simple: four women widowed when their husbands’ heist goes wrong band together to pull off one big job to pay back the man their husbands ripped off. Widows is a terse thriller where all the pieces matter, right down to the West Highland White Terrier Viola Davis’ protagonist “Veronica” carries everywhere she goes. Pay attention, though that’s not difficult to do since the narrative is so concise and direct.
That’s not to say that the movie is without moral weight. Pot boilers rarely are. Popular entertainment emerges from the same social milieu as high-brow art, after all, morality is part of who we are whether we like it or not. Steven McQueen has always been a morally conscious filmmaker, and his co-writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) is skilled at weaving satire (the conscience in court jester mode) into what appears to be basic a beach read.
In Widows, the underlying moral structure is one of systemic injustice and ever-percolating racism. These concerns only overwhelm the narrative in a single moment—it works because it’s perfectly acted and shot, and there’s something to be said for making it unavoidable, but I can’t shake the feeling it might have been more powerful kept in the subtext—but most of the time it’s simply the air the characters breathe. It’s so fully realized on-screen you start to fear it’s going to fill your theater too. if the movie is “about” anything, it’s about these women learning to navigate this world and claim their own dignity. Those threads are as exciting as anything involving masks, guns, and bags full of money.
Widows is a treat. Intelligent thrillers made for adults feel too rare these days. Widows is intelligent in its construction too. McQueen didn’t leave his visual verve in the airport bookstall. There’s too many to name, but I’ll highlight a scene shot entirely from the hood of a car as one stand-out moment. We see the transition from poor to rich reflected in the car’s hood and windshield and watch the African American driver’s face as two powerful, unseen white people have an unguarded, damning conversation in the backseat. And that’s not mere preachiness. That’s the driving tension in the story itself. It’s just (almost) never confrontational even while it’s unavoidable.